OPINION: Following the Supreme Court’s ban on affirmative action, we must find new remedies to promote educational equity

Since the Supreme Court abolished affirmative action last June, selective colleges and universities have had to dismantle their most effective tools for pursuing racially and ethnically diverse student bodies.

Some institutions have even preemptively eliminated race-based scholarships and special academic programs for historically marginalized groups, fearing litigation.

It’s no surprise that advocates of equity feel profoundly pessimistic. Yet if we broaden our focus, there are myriad more impactful ways to promote educational equity than adjusting the admissions practices of elite colleges.

Related: Will the Rodriguez family’s college dreams survive the end of affirmative action?

Just a small subset of the 4,000 degree-granting institutions in the United States have ever practiced race-conscious admissions, and only a tiny fraction of all Black, Latino and Native American students attend those schools.

Widespread improvements in educational equity and economic mobility will happen only when minority-serving and broad-access institutions receive our respect and support.

Here are some ways we can help:

1. Invest in the schools doing the bulk of equity work. Far greater numbers of Black, Latino and Native American students are enrolled at public and private schools with moderately selective to open admission practices than at elite colleges. These more accessible institutions have higher economic mobility ratings than their Ivy peers due to the larger number of students from low-income backgrounds that they serve. Initiatives that increase affordability and make big publics feel more like small privates directly contribute to their positive outcomes.

2. Redirect philanthropic dollars from prestige-school endowments to minority-serving institutions. Chronic underfunding and inadequate endowments limit the opportunities that minority-serving institutions can provide. Historically Black colleges and universities and community colleges, in particular, have been neglected by philanthropy for decades.

These institutions are being asked to carry the responsibility of changing lives and creating regional workforces but are not reliably given the fiscal means to do so. Redirecting even a small percentage of philanthropic dollars to these schools would be transformative. The recent $100 million gift to Spelman College, three-quarters of which will go to scholarships, embodies this mandate.

3.Address the needs of the fast-growing community of “some college, no credential”—an estimated 40.4 million former students as of 2021. Black, Latino and Native American students comprise greater proportions of this demographic than they do of total undergraduates.

This large number is unsurprising when you consider the actual cost of college attendance. In New York, a student enrolled at a public four-year university who qualifies for full federal and state aid will still face a gap of $15,000 to $20,000 to cover total educational expenses. (This gap increases if the student is among the more than one in five undergraduates who is a parent and if child care costs are considered.)

Nationwide, Black students have the greatest unmet need; many take on debt to graduate, while others drop out.

Several states have launched efforts to reenroll potential-completers, including some of the 2.9 million former students who have at least two years’ worth of credits. Other programs, like ASAP and ACE, have helped to significantly improve degree completion at associate and baccalaureate colleges.

Supporting and expanding these initiatives through advocacy and philanthropy would directly benefit the completion rates of historically marginalized students.

4. Elite graduate schools, firms and training programs need to expand the circle of schools from which they recruit. If they do not, the Supreme Court ruling risks impeding the pipeline of underrepresented groups into prestigious career tracks and leadership positions, many of which rely on a specific recruiting network and academic pedigree.

For example, internships enhance a college student’s ability to secure a job after graduation, but a recent survey found that “male students, white students, students who are not first generation, and students who are not Pell Grant recipients were more likely to participate in internships than other groups of students.” A study of CUNY, a minority-serving system, reported that only 10 percent of students participated in paid internships during college.

There are remedies to this problem. For more than a dozen years, the philanthropy I work for in New York City has supported paid internships for women with financial need. The students choose internships that best serve their career interests, and we provide a stipend and cover transportation expenses.

Related: STUDENT VOICE: The end of affirmative action is slamming doors for students like me

On the national level, organizations like Braven partner with schools to supplement campus career services with mentoring, internship and job application assistance and a career development curriculum. There are many other opportunities and innovations; what is needed is investment to pilot and scale these programs and appropriate funding to help less selective schools prepare students for them.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action, feelings of distress are warranted. But the bigger question, asked recently by Jonathan Koppell, president of Montclair State University, a Hispanic-serving institution, is, “How do we create more opportunities for more people, regardless of their race or ethnicity, so that it doesn’t feel like the stakes of getting into one of these tiny, tiny institutions is so life-altering?”

The answer: shift our attention and dollars to the colleges, universities and student success organizations pursuing a vision of abundant opportunity.

Rona Sheramy is executive director of the Jewish Foundation for Education of Women (JFEW), a private philanthropy that supports college completion for women of all backgrounds.

This story about promoting educational equity was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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