In its 6-3 decision on the use of race-conscious admissions policies in higher education admissions, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) reversed course on a 40-year precedent that will ripple through our society for years to come.
Here in California, we’ve lived in a post-affirmative action environment for decades. Voters passed Proposition 209 in 1996, which banned the use of affirmative action by public colleges and universities. The long-term effects are profound: in the past quarter century, the UC system has been unable to enroll a student body that reflects the diversity of the students graduating from the state’s public high schools. In 2019, for example, more than 52% of the graduating class of California high schools identified as Latinx, while only 24.5% of first year undergraduate students in the UC system identified as Latinx. In short, students, not institutions, carry the brunt of the impact.
The golden state’s policy decision, now cemented by the Supreme Court, perpetuates the dangerous falsehood that those who haven’t yet reached the front door of higher education are somehow less skilled, worthy, or capable of succeeding and contributing to the success of our nation. Worse yet, it carries a devastating and misguided message to underrepresented students: opportunity is limited and you don’t belong.
Calbright College, which I lead, is proud to be an open access institution. Our goal is to blow the doors of opportunity off their hinges – focusing on adult learners, traditionally left behind, whose hard work and lived experiences have made their journey to us remarkably meritorious. Often the primary and sometimes only access point for hundreds of thousands of Californians, the California Community Colleges system, of which we are a part, faces an evermore critical role in serving the diverse needs of Californians. While inclusive admissions policies, holistic support services, and guaranteed articulation agreements between the CCC, CSU, and UC system can nurture diversity, this decision elevates the importance for less selective institutions to not only focus on educational access, but to also deliver a high-quality education for all learners that drives a stronger throughput to student completion and success.
During my career in the federal government — in the U.S. Department of Education and as higher education advisor to President Obama — I saw the chilling effects of institutions that promised students opportunity and instead saddled them with debt and, most often, no degree. These institutions capitalize on the aspirations of a veteran beginning their next chapter, or a parent looking to advance their career to build a better life for their family. Students will, undoubtedly, turn to colleges that trumpet messages of accessibility, and it’s incumbent upon institutions that serve these learners to build operations and support services around their needs. To press beyond enrollments and focus on student advancement, completion, and transition into the knowledge economy towards a bright future – to truly put students at the center of their design.
In her dissent of this SCOTUS decision, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a self-proclaimed product of affirmative action whose father did not speak English, writes that “Equal educational opportunity is a prerequisite to achieving racial equality in our Nation.”
Now more than ever, higher education, especially less selective institutions that educate the majority of Americans, has a substantial role and responsibility to advance equity and expand opportunity in this country. Enrolling students who look like the communities we serve is a good starting point, but even more essential, we must take bold and courageous actions to create the conditions that empower them to graduate and succeed.
Ajita Talwalker Menon is the President and CEO of Calbright College.