Let’s Talk November 2023
By Sanaa Scott-Wheeler Part 2
Part 2 of 2
Welcome back to Let’s Talk.
In Part 1, I examined how decades of legal challenges claiming reverse racism led to the June 2023 U.S. Supreme Court’s watershed decision striking down affirmative action in college admissions. So, where do we go from here?
Black College Enrollment is Declining and the Racial Wealth Gap is Growing
From its inception in the 1960’s, affirmative action resulted in a rapid rise in minority student college enrollment. But from 2010-2020, unlike for Hispanic and Asian students whose enrollment continued to rise steadily by 26% and 10% respectively, enrollment for Black and Native American students steadily declined – down 22% or more than 650,000 students for Blacks and 39% for Native Americans. For Black students, the most impactful reason is financial. The average Black household earns about half as much as the average white household and white families have eight times the median wealth of Black families – $188,200 compared with $24,100 – a gap that has been widening. Decades of employment and housing discrimination have created an intractable economic chasm. One jarring result is less access to good quality K-12 schools – 37% of Black children go to less resourced, high-poverty primary and secondary schools compared to 13% of Asian and 7% of white students.
Higher education was supposed to be the great equalizer to overcome these disparities, but only 28% of Black Americans and 21% of Hispanics have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 42% of white and 62% of Asian-Americans. For Black college students, 86% have student loan debt and Black college graduates end up owing nearly 50% more than white graduates. This financial disparity extends into the workplace, where Black graduates earn on average 15% less than their white counterparts and are more likely to be underemployed, making their debt harder to repay. So not surprisingly, college affordability looms large. One study found that regardless of parental education level, students who felt college was unaffordable were much less likely to apply. Another study showed that academically low-achieving wealthy students enroll in college at higher rates than their high-achieving peers of lesser means.
How Can Colleges Achieve Student Diversity Now?
Colleges and universities now face much greater challenges including renewed legal risk in trying to diversify their student body, the benefits of which even Justice Roberts in his majority opinion acknowledged. Beyond an enriched social milieu, student body diversity confers proven lasting gains for all students and their institutions in shared academic knowledge, new discoveries, and even increased research dollars. There is clear evidence that in states that returned to race-neutral admissions procedures, minority enrollment fell rapidly. Some universities have used class or economic status to achieve diversity, but with diminished results simply because of population racial demographics.
Gaps in college preparedness caused by the racial and economic segregation of K-12 education must be on the table, with one trade off being enrolling more students with lower grades and test scores, which some fear increases the risk of student attrition and lowers institutional prestige. However, one in-depth study found the opposite: such students admitted to selective four-year institutions benefited from greater institutional resources, performed similarly to other students, graduated at higher rates and enjoyed higher post-college earnings. Some colleges have begun offering more need-based financial aid, increased targeted and direct recruitment in racially diverse areas, expanded community college transfers and partnerships with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), implemented standardized test-free or optional admissions policies, and abandoned admissions preferences for legacy students, the children of big donors, and those with the greatest admissions advantage–athletes.
To tackle the deficits that lower income and minority students face, equitable K-12 state funding must be legislated. School districts need to consider offering affordable or free SAT/ACT prep courses, college essay workshops, more rigorous and unbiased career and financial aid counseling, and establish private sector mentoring and skilled trade apprenticeship programs.
If You’re Black in America, You Still Have Options
For some Black and brown students, earning a four-year degree is deemed a rite of passage. But for many, it is considered a privilege and out of reach. Whether you're the first in your family or one of a long line, applying to college can be daunting. While it’s true that some careers require a bachelor’s or graduate degree, there are enumerable good, well-paying career choices that can be had with a two-year associate degree, a certificate program, or a training program or apprenticeship in the skilled trades.
Things to Consider:
First, make an honest assessment of yourself. For example, there are different types of “intelligence”, a theory founded by Harvard psychologist, Howard Gardner, which explains that everyone has natural strengths in different areas. There are ways to forge new paths and use our natural skills to our advantage. You might use this information to help guide your view.
A career choice may seem great from afar, but not up close. Seek out people working in your area of interest. Ask them about the pros and cons of their field. Inquire about volunteering or shadowing them at work. Can you see yourself enjoying doing their job? (Note: Colleges place a high value on volunteer work.)
Explore the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs.) Their reputation of academic excellence, dedicated faculty, a welcoming environment and peer group, and financial affordability are strong incentives.
Find out about the skilled trades (e.g., electrician, plumbing, air-conditioning/heating. mechanic, masonry, carpentry, etc.) Some trade programs offer free or reduced tuition and/or internships or paid apprenticeships. Some programs are actively seeking minority candidates, who have historically been under-represented and unfamiliar with these opportunities for stable good paying jobs.
Find out the salary range for your field of interest, what the job market looks like now and predictably in the future. But don’t make your choice just about the money.
Dream big, but be strategic and realistic. Apply to colleges in each tier: highly selective/Ivy League, mid-level private and public, and less competitive private and public colleges.
Community college or two-year degree programs can be a great destination or a path to entry into four-year colleges that accept transfer credits. Your choice.
If you’re already in the workforce and want to attend college, consider evening classes, unique tuition free programs, as well as online degree programs. But be sure to research them thoroughly before applying to ensure they are fully accredited by a legitimate board.
Embrace writing the college application essay. Your story is worth telling and you don’t have to write like Shakespeare. Remember that the Supreme Court ruling allows you to talk about your race or ethnicity in your essay, provided it's concretely tied to a quality of your character or a unique ability that you can contribute to the university. Don’t hesitate to talk about it.
Maintain and establish relationships with those who support your goals and believe in you. Listen to constructive feedback from everyone including teachers, school counselors, friends, family, and mentors. But don’t be dissuaded by unwarranted negativity.
Remember, we do not need to squeeze into spaces that don’t fit us, and we should never stop striving for success!
Hope you’ll join me next time.
Sanaa Scott-Wheeler is a senior, majoring in Sociology at Arcadia University in Glenside, PA. She has a special interest in traveling the world, expanding her knowledge of different. cultures, theater and film, and is studying acting at Playhouse West Philadelphia.