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Changing the Narrative: Education Equity as a National Priority

by Raja Bella Hicks

The year is 1966. It's an arid day at Houston’s Texas Southern University. Alexander has just been notified by the dean’s office that he’s been selected by Boeing, an American multinational aircraft corporation, to become a company lawyer. This is so much more than a job for a Black man in the segregated American South. It’s a chance to transcend boundaries; a chance at social mobility and a life full of opportunities. Through his success, Alexander opens new doors for himself and his family, starting his own real estate business, helping his younger brother open a restaurant, and helping his niece get to college. This dreamlike scenario became a reality, because of Boeing's affirmative action plan during the 1960s, when they sought out new employees at Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Alexander’s brother - the restaurant owner - is my father, and I am his niece. His story is a testament to how affirmative action has helped countless folks like me, a college student studying diplomacy and world affairs, aspiring to create meaningful change for immigrants. The United States Supreme Court ruling in June on Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) vs. Harvard ended affirmative action in college admissions, undermining the goal of achieving equity–especially in education. This ruling perpetuates the preexisting inequalities that minorities already face within the educational system. The idea that today, everyone has an equal and merit-based shot at higher education is a false narrative and fails to examine the barriers that race plays in both the historic and modern contexts of the US. Affirmative action set education equity as a national priority, but with the Supreme Court’s decision we must find ways to systematically reimagine what education for all looks like.

Why Do We Need Affirmative Action?

Was it time to end affirmative action action? Haven’t we reached a more equal playing field? Put simply, no. Affirmative action refers to the policies and practices aimed at providing opportunities to historically marginalized groups, through measures like preferential treatment or quotas, to address past and present barriers to education and job opportunities. Today, there are still many barriers to an equitable education system. For example, The New York Times cites a 2017 study that found that at “38 colleges in America, including five Ivy Leagues, more students came from the top 1 percent of the income scale than from the entire bottom 60 percent.” This staggering statistic shows the economic disparity within college admissions which is undoubtedly also connected to race.

Not only is the admissions process inequitable, but the application process also creates a roadblock to college for many. Jeffery Selingo at the Atlantic writes about how the Common App’s lengthy format places an unfair burden on students without access to resources like college counselors, supportive parents or teachers, and even a computer with reliable internet access. In addition, redlining (the discriminatory practice of dividing neighborhoods by the denial of financial services to residents of certain areas, based on race or ethnicity) impacts the funding of schools that students of color attend.

What Will Be the Impacts of This Decision?

With those statistics in mind, how could the US end something so vital to strengthening educational equity? A 2023 Georgetown University report cites after examining six different admissions models, that “when it comes to the goal of equalizing college opportunity across advantaged and disadvantaged racial/ethnic and socioeconomic groups, there is no good substitute for the consideration of race.” The omission of race from college applications ignores the need to support talented students from all walks of life, especially those who are descendants of slavery, segregation and their legacies. This 2023 ruling will likely repeat the pattern created by the 1996 affirmative action ban in California, where public universities saw a shocking 40% drop in enrollment among Black and Latino students in 1998 post the ruling. Justice Sonia Sotomayor summarized in her dissenting Supreme Court opinion: “Race is one small piece of a much larger admissions puzzle where most of the pieces disfavor under-represented racial minorities.”

How Do We Advance Education Equity?

So, what now? We need to start with recognizing that the US education system is biased and the ban on affirmative action reinforces existing inequities. In the wake of this decision, we must find ways to expose and remove structural education barriers and uplift marginalized students. The Supreme Court decision should spark the beginning of true systemic change that will create sustainable educational equity among disadvantaged groups, especially for students of color.

First, colleges and universities should take a more proactive approach to cultivating relationships with students living in marginalized communities. By doing so, they can create a more diverse applicant pool, while also addressing some of the root causes of educational inequity. By reaching out to high schools in underserved areas, a wider-range of students may be encouraged to apply.

Second, students should continue to write about their life experiences in college applications. Within the decision, Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., said: “[A]s all parties agree, nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.” This means applicants can write about how race, ethnicity or gender have affected their lived experiences.

Third, colleges and universities can use other metrics to enhance the diversity of their incoming classes by asking other questions such as geographic location, languages spoken, socioeconomic status, etc. These practices must remain within the law, but higher education institutions can find ways to broaden admissions through other types of targeted selection and diversification.

Fourth, all colleges should simplify the admissions process and make it accessible for all. Creating a simpler application that perhaps asks for information in stages instead of all at once could help more students to apply. The existing applications are wildly complicated, especially for first-generation immigrant students. By creating simple applications for both college admissions and for financial aid, we can open up more opportunities and give a fair shot to underrepresented groups.

Lastly, while all these systemic changes need to be made in order to overhaul the inequitable structure, there is one tangible step that we can take: vote. We can vote for changes we want to see in education within local level elections like school board members, all the way up to the President of the United States. Voting allows us to push for education equity and change the landscape. Though the court banned affirmative action, it did not ban pursuit of the goal of diverse campus communities, the quest for social mobility and racial justice; the goal of an equal education for all.

It’s now 2023. It's a hot and sunny day in Los Angeles, California at Occidental College. My sweet Uncle Alexander calls to check on me. He is immensely proud of the person I have become and the opportunities that I have because of him. Alexander created a better life for himself, my father and his family, and me and my future family– all through affirmative action. I hope to see the government, colleges and universities, and individuals make efforts to create a more equitable educational system for students like me.

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