Eliminating Affirmative Action Won’t Level the Playing Field – It Will Tilt It Further in the Wrong Direction

The end of the academic year usually brings a collective exhale of relief at colleges and universities. Today the education sector is stunned and disappointed.

In two Supreme Court decisions – rooted in ideology, not reality – six conservative justices struck down affirmative action in higher education.

Dismantling affirmative action will have a profound impact on American society. It will make hundreds of colleges and universities less diverse. It will diminish opportunity for all students to learn from and with people of different backgrounds, life experiences, and perspectives. And it will deny students from low-income and underserved communities the transformative power of a bachelor’s degree – the best tool in the nation’s arsenal to accelerate social and economic mobility. 

The higher education sector does not serve students equally by any stretch of the imagination. Low-income families invest the equivalent of 157 percent of their annual income to pay for one year at a four-year college. In contrast, high-income families send their children to college for 14 percent of their annual income. Only 50 percent of Black students entering a four-year institution in 2016 completed their degree in six years, compared to approximately 80 percent of Asian American students and 74 percent of white students. Just 21 percent of first-generation college-going students receive a bachelor’s degree within six years. Turning a blind eye to these facts does not make them any less real. Eliminating affirmative action doesn’t level the playing field—it tilts it further in the wrong direction.    

With the few ballasts for educational equity in our country eroding, Americans must act.

  • Employers must invest in more robust pathways to support first-generation and low-income students to gain access to wealth-generating careers. This includes expanded investments in internship and apprenticeship programs, and growing programs for high school and college students designed to create diverse pipelines into viable professions.
  • Higher education must innovate, and develop programs that are more accessible, affordable, competency-based, and career-aligned. There are myriad models that have proven to expand student access and success. It is time to scale them.
  • The K12 sector must focus on developing the skills we know young people need for success in school, work, and life. And establish robust and seamless pathways for first-generation and low-income students to support them through high school into postsecondary school and the workforce.  
  • The public sector must underwrite tuition for those that need it, create incentives for postsecondary institutions that demonstrably accelerate social and economic mobility for large numbers of students, and consider how colleges and universities can use family income and other indicators to build diverse student bodies. 

Now that the Supreme Court has dismantled affirmative action, we must act with renewed urgency to forge unexpected alliances, work across sectors, and test new models. We must invest in the innovative, often unseen solutions that come from underestimated and undervalued sources. The ideas are out there. Our work is to connect the dots, and make it happen.

To these ends, our organizations, College Track and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, have joined forces to create the Carnegie Postsecondary Commission. The Commission is composed of K-12 superintendents, university presidents, and visionary thinkers – all extraordinary leaders who have successfully broken ground for young people, often with limited resources and in the face of significant headwinds.  The Commission will illuminate, amplify, and propel efforts that support first-generation, underrepresented, and low-income young people to thrive in postsecondary school and work.  We will not focus on issuing white papers that too few people read. Instead, we will focus on action – catalyzing policy and practice to accelerate social and economic mobility for all Americans.  

The stakes are high—and the recent ruling on affirmative action raises the stakes even higher. It’s time for us all to find new ways to act. Our young people, the economy, and our democracy depend on it.

Shirley M. Collado is the chief executive officer of College Track, and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Timothy Knowles is the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.