On November 23, 2023, the NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service and The Century Foundation held a discussion, “What’s Next after Affirmative Action for College Admissions?” moderated by Denise Smith, deputy director and senior fellow at The Century Foundation. The conversation featured panelists Tressie McMillan Cottom, a professor at UNC–Chapel Hill, a New York Times columnist, and a 2020 MacArthur Fellow; Damon Hewitt, the president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; and John B. King, Jr., the chancellor of the State University of New York (SUNY) and former secretary of education during the Obama administration. The conversation revolved around the U.S. Supreme Court’s reversal of affirmative action in college admissions as well as the tools universities still have at their disposal to ensure accessibility for historically underrepresented populations.
The panelists discussed that the recent Supreme Court decision did not wholly overturn all historical affirmative action precedent. Specifically, Damon Hewitt emphasized that the Supreme Court did not necessarily overturn affirmative action, but rather specified that an applicant’s race “can no longer be a negative factor, even though many saw it as a positive” However, the panelists argued that race is an essential factor for many students in how they identify and it has informed their entire life journey. The panel also recognized that highly selective colleges, graduate programs, and professional programs are likely to see a decline in diverse student populations due to the ruling.
During the discussion, the panelists warned that further attacks against diversity initiatives could be on the horizon. Attacks on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs, nondiscrimination in contracts (federal and private), and nondiscrimination in the workplace could potentially face legal challenges, which would all have impacts on colleges and universities. Therefore, higher education must be prepared to adjust its strategies to remain accessible to all students.
Despite these challenges, the panelists pointed out, there are solutions that institutions and policymakers can support to ensure accessibility. Tressie Cottom noted that Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have demonstrated their ability to help students from underrepresented populations persist and thrive in higher education and beyond. However, HBCUs have been “chronically underfunded,” limiting their ability to help more students. Specifically, a TCF report notes that endowments per full-time student at a predominantly white institutions (PWI) are approximately six times greater than at HBCUs. John King added that the endowment sizes of the more selective institutions, which operate to exclude, tend to have significant amounts of endowment dollars, while institutions whose mission is about “access and opportunity and the engines of social mobility” have significantly smaller endowments. Therefore, he calls for reorienting investments to institutions such as HBCUs, which would ensure students have access to higher education.
The panelists also underscored that policy proposals such as doubling the Pell Grant and investing in HBCUs would also give students essential financial support to attend college. John King noted that today, the Pell Grant only covers around 28 percent of the cost of pursuing a higher education compared to 1987, when it covered approximately 80 percent of higher education costs. According to an Urban Institute report, a recent proposal to double the Pell Grant over five years would not only allow the Pell Grant to keep up with the rising costs associated with college, but also expand the number of students eligible to receive the Pell Grant.
Finally, the panelists noted that institutions should implement new recruitment strategies that abide by the Supreme Court’s ruling but still find ways to reach historically underrepresented groups. For example, universities can use low-income, first-generation, and veteran status factors to bring these students on campus. Although universities can use such metrics, panelists argued that university leadership’s backing to ensure a diverse campus is crucial. Parents and students will closely follow a university’s comments on providing diversity, the panelists pointed out, therefore, higher education leaders must signify their institution’s support if they want to attract diverse enrollments.
Additionally, the panelists noted that pipeline programs are essential to providing another pathway for students to access higher education. John King pointed out that the SUNY schools implemented what is known as cascading admissions, which allows students who may have been denied acceptance to their first choice school to be simultaneously accepted to other campuses that match their needs. In SUNY’s Transfer Match program, SUNY reaches out to students currently enrolled in community college who have done well and rewards those students with the opportunity to transfer to a four-year public university.
As highlighted by the panelists, leaders and stakeholders in higher education need to take the necessary steps to ensure their institutions continue to attract a diverse student body. Additionally, HBCUs are not just providing underrepresented students access to higher education, but they are doing so with limited resources in comparison to their PWI counterparts. Federal and state policymakers must address the funding gap to ensure that HBCUs are appropriately funded and receive the financing they have historically been deprived of.
Tressie Cottom noted that educators and policymakers must reimagine the bigger story of higher education, in that it “expands opportunities and expands opportunities to the middle class.” Additionally, the panelist suggested changing how we judge an institution as high quality. Cotton argued that an institution should not be judged based on how many Supreme Court Justices it produces but on “how well it changes the circumstances of birth of the students who show up at the door. No matter how they show up.”