Posted on April 25, 2014 · Posted in Frank Friday

Affirmative action was once again in the news this week as the Supreme Court — in a 6-2 ruling on the closely watched Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action — upheld Michigan’s constitutional amendment that bans the use of race-based criteria for admission to the state’s public universities. The ruling comes after more than a decade’s-worth of bitterly contested judicial actions on the question of the legality of racial preferences in higher education. The central message in the majority opinion was that protecting racial and ethnic minorities was not the role of the judiciary; rather, such decisions resided with voters who could resolve differences in opinion through their right to vote on such matters.

Some background: in 2003, in Grutter v. Bollinger, the Supreme Court upheld that race could be one factor among others in law school admissions at the University of Michigan. In response to that ruling, Michigan voters approved Proposal 2 in 2006 which amended the State Constitution to declare that there could be no further preferential treatment by race in public education, contracting or public sector employment. Later, in 2012, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit declared Michigan’s Proposal 2 unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated the equal protection clause. Those supporting race-based preferences argued that while athletes, legacy children, and students from underrepresented parts of the state could be given special consideration, racial and ethnic minorities could not advocate for their interests in the same way. The most recent ruling by the Supreme Court is expected to lend support to seven other states that have passed similar legislation. Other states are also expected to follow suit by passing state laws banning the use of racial preferences in the admissions process.

This ruling has troubling implications for the future of higher education. A recent study examining minority enrollment in states that have banned the use of race as a criteria for college admissions shows a decline in black and Hispanic freshmen. In California, following Proposition 209 in 1996, the decline has been stark at the top state universities:  for instance, at University of California, Berkeley, 11 percent of freshmen are Hispanic and 2 percent are black, although 49 percent of the state’s college-aged residents are Hispanic and 9 percent are black. In Texas, where the legality of race-based preferences was closely watched in the Fisher v. University of Texas lawsuit, Hispanic freshmen in Texas A&M number only 19 percent compared to the state’s 45 percent of college aged Hispanic residents; black freshman are only 3 percent compared to 15 percent of Texas’s college-aged black residents.

Setting aside for a moment the divisions in our political landscape on the issue of affirmative action, a key issue here is the role higher education plays in creating social and economic mobility. A recent Oxfam report shows that in the U.S., “the wealthiest one percent captured 95 percent of post-financial crisis growth between 2009 and 2012, while the bottom 90 percent became poorer.” Current poverty rates of 15 percent represent 46.5 million people without adequate food, housing or income security.  Another recent survey conducted by the Luxembourg Income Study (LIS) showed that middle class and poor families in the United States have lower income than citizens of other advanced countries. The growing inequality in U.S. society has grave consequences for U.S. competitiveness and innovations in the global market.

Addressing the entrenched inequality of the country should be an urgent priority not just at the level of our policymakers in Congress but also for those at the helm of higher education, both in public and private institutions. While redistribution policies, higher minimum wage and stronger labor unions in other countries might explain the less stark differences in income in other advanced countries, a key problem here in the United States is educational attainment which, over the last three decades, has lagged behind other industrialized nations. A recent report concluded that “school segregation remains a central feature of American public education … [L]ow-income black children is more racially and socioeconomically isolated today than at any time since 1980.”

The educational achievement gap starts young in the United States and is deeply linked to race and income levels. Low income minority children are often concentrated in low-achieving schools, and have access to fewer resources than middle-class or wealthy children. A 2011 study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows that children living in poverty and reading below grade level by 3rd grade are three times as likely to drop out of high school compared to middle-class students. Another landmark study conducted almost two decades ago, known as the “30 million word-gap study,” found that by age 4, children in low-income families had poorer language skills compared to their counterparts in more affluent families. A follow-up study at Stanford University found that the vocabulary gap begins as early as 18 months, putting already disadvantaged kids farther behind when they enter school.

Higher education has a clear role to play in helping to level the playing field and providing the necessary pathway towards social and economic mobility. Admissions policies in colleges and universities must reflect the complex realities of our society and attempt to rectify the inherent inequalities, disadvantages and lack of opportunities that define the existence of millions of young people in the country. Race-based preferences might just be one way to begin to address the problem of inequality of opportunity. Income levelsgeographic locationdisability-level, and gender in relation to STEM fields are a few other factors that should be considered in order to create healthy diversity and equal opportunity in higher education.

Americans are divided on the issue of affirmative action whether cast as “preferential treatment” or “helping” disadvantaged groups. The solution is not to shy away from this conflicted issue, but to have a national dialogue on addressing inequality, poverty, and racial disparities. The goal is shared prosperity for all.