Achieving diversity of enrollment in U.S. colleges and graduate schools—and by extension, employment in professional fields—has always been an uphill battle. With the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down race-based affirmative action programs in higher education, that battle will be even tougher. Without affirmative action’s proven methods of ensuring that talent pipelines are more representative of the nation as a whole, employment in professional fields will become less diverse, leading to a range of bad outcomes.
Three talent pipelines in particular that should be at the forefront of national awareness are those leading to the medical, engineering, and legal fields. These sectors are likely to suffer larger losses in diversity than many others, due to the competitive nature of entering even lower-ranking medical, engineering, and legal programs. People entering these programs typically possess just about every advantage a student can have, from having had high-quality learning environments in primary school to being able to afford expensive admissions consulting services when entering higher education—advantages that members of historically marginalized communities typically lack.
The result of the underlying privilege associated with most successful medical, engineering, and pre-law applicants is that talent pipelines for these fields are dominated by a somewhat uniform demographic: white or Asian, male, and wealthy. Despite some progress expanding the pool of medical, engineering, and law school graduates, these workforces remain stubbornly homogenous.
The current lack of diversity in these three fields hurts the country’s economy and communities. The end of affirmative action threatens to roll back even the meager progress made and heightens the need to identify and fund creative solutions to ensure that more Black, Latinx, and Native students have opportunities in these fields, and more communities can benefit from their contributions.
Why Racial Diversity Matters in Medicine, Engineering, and Law
The prospect of further stifling diversity in the sectors of medicine, engineering, and law has grave consequences for underserved communities across the nation. Workforce diversity in these sectors impacts racial equity in two ways: not only do careers in these fields provide high socioeconomic mobility for individual workers, but also the products and services associated with the sectors are critical to quality of life.
Medicine, engineering, and law are—arguably more than any other fields—responsible for ensuring health, well-being, security, and freedom. Access to quality health care services quite literally determines who lives and who dies. The engineering sector is the source of technologies that underpin our society: advanced medical devices and therapies, communication capabilities, and other tools that need diverse ideas and perspectives to shape our ability to function in everyday society. And legal representation is essential for navigating the rules of society and achieving key life milestones, from determining who is convicted of crimes and how they are sentenced to shaping who gets the outcomes they want to support their family, business, or immigration goals.
Sadly, these sectors are already rife with disparity in terms of which demographics benefit from their activity, and which are neglected: the country is pockmarked with health care deserts concentrated in low-income areas and communities of color. Health care outcomes are measurably worse for women and people of color than their white and male counterparts. Critical engineering products such as voice and facial recognition software—which impact everyday convenience factors such as the performance of digital assistants and also critical areas such as the violation of civil rights—seemingly are designed without much input from women, people of color, or the disabled. And the legal system is rife with biased decision-making that harms communities of color, from the over-referral of children of color to the child welfare system, to discrimination in eviction proceedings, to harshing sentencing in criminal cases.
The composition of the workforces in these fields drives many of these disparities: white and Asian individuals, as well as men, are overrepresented in sector talent pools, while Native American, Latinx, and Black people, as well as women, are underrepresented. Diversity in these workforces is directly tied to critical outcomes such as who gets access to health care, which diseases are cured, what societal problems are addressed via technological solutions, and what legal precedents are set. It is not a coincidence that the people most overlooked by the sectors’ solutions and services are also those most underrepresented in their design and delivery.
Central to achieving equity in these fields is the deliberate cultivation of an inclusive workforce—one powered by diverse workers with lived experience of the challenges they are addressing. Doctors from historically marginalized communities deliver better medical outcomes for those communities due to racial concordance and bedside manner. At a time when black maternal health is poor and declining, the last thing the country needs is even fewer Black women in health care. Doctors from historically marginalized communities are also more likely to practice in their communities, which are typically medically underserved, helping solve health care’s persistent and serious workforce distribution problem. Similarly, diverse engineers not only boost innovation on product teams, they bring awareness and understanding of problems faced by communities that are frequently overlooked by mainstream engineering companies. And lawyers of color are critical to ensuring that people of color are fairly represented in the courtroom and beyond.
Solutions for Advancing Diversity in a Post-Affirmative Action Reality
We know that overturning race-conscious admissions not only causes an immediate decrease in the number of students from historically marginalized communities admitted to selective schools, but also diminishes employment and earnings of professionals from those communities over time. It is also clear that alternative admissions policies fall far short of race-based affirmative action in terms of their ability to promote the enrollment of diverse candidates.
In light of this situation, the country will need to turn to creative strategies to ensure that admissions approaches serve not only socioeconomically disadvantaged students, but also students from communities that have been historically marginalized through structural racism as well. In addition to pursuing the educational solutions The Century Foundation has championed, the nation will need to invest in robust workforce and wraparound support programs that boost the achievement and persistence of students from marginalized communities. Investing in achieving a more diverse student enrollment in higher education through these programs not only will lead to a more equitable future but also will work toward the nation’s degree attainment goal as well as improve the country’s global competitiveness.
Examples of programs that support students that typically are from historically marginalized communities include “redshirt” programs—named for the intercollegiate athletic custom of providing athletes with an extra year of practice with a team before competing on the field—which give promising students a year of preparation and training before enrollment. Redshirt programs have been shown not only to increase the likelihood that students from marginalized communities will be admitted into an undergraduate, pre-med, or engineering program, but also to help them persist and graduate. In challenging fields such as pre-med, for example, where attrition rates hover around 75 percent, the focus on successful completion is just as important as initial acceptance when it comes to building talent pipelines.
Another critical investment that should be made is in the replication of cooperative (“co-op”) learning programs, run in partnership with the nation’s leading engineering companies at racially diverse colleges, especially Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). These programs serve as channels that frequently lead to pre-graduation job offers, and are a critical part of both the practical education and network building that engineering students require in order to successfully transition into employment. It’s imperative that these industries see HBCUs as viable partners in innovation as well as a source for diverse talent.
Importantly, solutions for promoting diversity in medical, engineering, and legal fields also need to start before college. All students in the nation’s PK–12 system should have access to college and career readiness pipelines that provide opportunities to explore, train, and prepare for future careers. These programs should be available to all students, not offered as a separate track, and should include high-quality work-based learning experiences, such as apprenticeships and internships in medicine, engineering, and law. High school students also benefit enormously from early college and dual-enrollment programs, which allow them to earn college credit by taking courses at a local college or at their own high school, but more must be done to ensure that Black, Latinx, and Native students have equitable access to these opportunities.
If the nation fails to replicate and improve on the results of race-based affirmative action through other programs, there will be severe and far-reaching impacts that reverberate through historically marginalized communities as students from these communities are further excluded from the talent pipelines serving critical fields of employment. What is likely to be sacrificed in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision is more than socioeconomic opportunity for students who have been denied a level playing field on which to compete. It is also the talents they would have brought to key industries; the spotlight they could have shined on the country’s most vulnerable communities; and the progress that would have been made toward closing the racial gaps that divide this nation.