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  • Writer's pictureMarybeth Gasman

The Future of Diversity on Campus in the Wake of the Affirmative Action Ruling


Diversity of all kinds is what makes society, and higher education excellent. Yet, what I know from my personal experience as well as from my research is that those working at institutions of higher education must be incentivized to pursue racial diversity at both the student (and faculty levels) – especially within the nation’s most selective colleges and universities.

In recent decades, institutions of higher education have increased diversity in enrollment at the undergraduate level. For example, between 1975 and 2016, the population of college undergraduates changed significantly, with increases across most racial and ethnic groups. Hispanic student enrollment has increased from 4% to 18%, Black student enrollment from 10% to 14%, Asian American and Pacific Islander enrollment from 2% to 7%, and Native American enrollment from 0.7% to 0.8%. At some of the nation’s highly selective institutions, the percentage of undergraduate students of color has increased substantially, and high standards of quality have remained intact. For example, Columbia University, New York University, and Stanford University have student bodies comprised of over 65% students of color. And, Northwestern University and the University of Chicago have student bodies comprised of roughly 55% students of color.[3] Racial and ethnic diversification has advanced in undergraduate student populations across the country due to the implementation of affirmative action – or more specifically, by considering race and ethnicity as one factor in college admissions.

“…will the next legal challenge be focused on the life experiences of people of color?”

It is important to note, however, that most of the students of color at highly selective universities are from middle- and upper-income families. The percentage of Pell Grant–eligible students, a marker of low-income status, ranges from 13% to 21% at the nation’s most selective institutions, which are considerably low figures. Nation-wide, 40% of undergraduate students receive Pell Grants overall. For comparison’s sake, at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, a staggering 71% of students are Pell Grant eligible.

There are considerable wealth gaps in the U.S. with the nation’s white families holding $124.5 trillion in assets as compared to Black families with $8 trillion, Hispanic families with $5.5 trillion, and all other racial and ethnic groups combined hold $15.7 trillion in assets. Moreover, according the U.S. Census, “white families had a median household wealth of $187,300, compared with $14,100 for Black householders and $31,700 for Hispanic householders. Asian householders had a median household wealth of $206,400.” This lack of access to wealth on the part of people of color translates to a lack of access to expensive standardized test preparation courses, high schools with dual enrollment and Advanced Placement courses, internships, and the extracurricular activities that are prized by highly selective colleges and universities.

The use of race as one factor in admissions, especially at highly selective colleges and universities, has enabled incredibly talented students of color to gain access to these institutions and the education – and social capital – that they provide. With the Supreme Court’s recent decision to ban the use of race in admissions decisions, the one glimmer of hope left for equitably diversifying America’s most selective institutions is Chief Justice John Robert’s caveat in the Court’s Opinion: “… nothing prohibits universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected the applicant’s life, so long as that discussion is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability that the particular applicant can contribute to the university.” Although these words don’t address systemic inequities that have existed since the beginning of our nation, they do allow admissions officers room to craft a class that brings unique perspectives and talents. However, the question remains: If colleges and universities take Robert’s at his word and consider life experiences related to race as a factor in college admissions, will the next legal challenge be focused on the life experiences of people of color? Will the courts be filled with lawsuits that focus on the individual experiences (and struggles), broadly defined of students and whether they are worthy of college admission? My hunch is that this is where we are heading in our shortsightedness around the power of diversity in our colleges and universities.


Essay originally published on Princeton University Press Ideas Forum, https://press.princeton.edu/ideas/in-dialogue-the-future-of-diversity-on-campus-in-the-wake-of-the-affirmative-action-ruling.

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