Affirmative action is needed for educational equity

Image courtesy of Ildar Sagdejev via Wikimedia Commons.

On Monday, Oct. 31, the Supreme Court heard deliberations regarding affirmative action in college admissions. In two separate but related cases, Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina, the Supreme Court will decide whether universities can continue to consider race as a component of entry into college.

Historically, the term “affirmative action” is used to refer to the effort to ensure that populations of college students are representative of American society. When the policy was first observed in American history, following President Kennedy’s Executive Order 10925, enrollment of Black students at colleges such as Harvard jumped as much as 76%, reports The New York Times. This was, and continues to be, a good-faith effort by academic institutions to give equal chances to those populations of people who may have faced structural and societal barriers to equal education. 

The history of racism in America, specifically against Black people, has been pervasive, and has put Black people at a significant disadvantage when it comes to economic performance. For example, The Washington Post reports that because white families have had more time and opportunities to accumulate wealth, “The average White family today holds more than $170,000 in net assets, compared with just $17,000 for the average Black family.” This affects where Black families end up living, and because of strict—and historically discriminatory—rules on school districting, subsequently affects the quality of schools that Black children attend. This can put these students at a disadvantage when it comes to metrics that are supposed to indicate college preparedness.

The current issue with affirmative action, brought up by conservatives, is rooted in a misconception regarding the policy’s origins. The organization bringing the case, Students for Fair Admissions, is headed by a conservative white man, Edward Blum, who has tried before to strike down affirmative action, according to CNN. The argument, as heard in court on Monday, that Blum is attempting to make is that affirmative action harms other student populations, such as Asian students, who traditionally have higher performance on college-readiness metrics. 

To consider factors about a student which may affect their college readiness is not unheard of. Plenty of colleges are happy to consider other factors that may hinder a student’s preparedness, such as illness or large life events. According to The Washington Post, the statistics show that minorities have had significant structural barriers when it comes to academic access, through no fault of their own,  because of America’s heinous history of racism. Why should this not be considered during the college admissions process?

Students for Fair Admissions does not seem to care much about legacy admissions to elite institutions, which skew the statistics of college admissions. According to The Harvard Crimson, the acceptance rate for all students between 2014 and 2019 was 6%, while the acceptance rate for legacy students was 33%. This clearly shows preference for the children of Ivy League parents, regardless of their credentials.

If the Supreme Court overturns the precedent of affirmative action, it will be devastating for educational accessibility. According to The New York Times, many legal experts predict that this is exactly what will happen, and it will cripple the equality of our system. We must not allow the discrimination of America’s past to affect Americans today, and considering factors that influence perceived college preparedness, as race historically has, is not new or unfair to other groups. 

The events of the deliberations on Monday seem to show that the Supreme Court wants to get rid of affirmative action. The conservative, Catholic supermajority has already overturned decisions with years of precedent, such as the controversial decision on Roe v. Wade earlier this year. In the deliberations and questioning of lawyers, the conservative judges seemed ready to pick apart any potential arguments. Justice Clarence Thomas, according to The New York Times, mentioned his lack of understanding regarding the term diversity: “I’ve heard the word diversity quite a few times, and I don’t have a clue what it means. It seems to mean everything for everyone.” Feigning ignorance and pretending as if people of different backgrounds in this country have not had different experiences based on racial discrimination is a slippery slope that may leave the educational system looking dangerously imbalanced and unrepresentative of the American population. 

This change will not only affect public institutions such as the University of North Carolina, but might also affect private institutions such as Vassar because we receive government funding. This decision may radically shift the landscape of modern American education, and it is important to ensure that all people have equitable access to education. Affirmative action has done great work to promote this access and must be supported at all levels of the educational system, from students to the government.

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