In the coming days or weeks, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to prohibit — or at least significantly restrict — the practice of considering race and ethnicity as factors in college admissions. Facing this likelihood, higher education leaders across the state and country are considering steps we can take to increase access for students from historically excluded and currently underrepresented groups.
As we prepare for whatever restrictions may be handed down by the court, it's important to remember that the academic preparation a high school student receives is what matters most in determining whether they will attend college.
As highlighted in a recent report from Brookings, disparities in college attendance rates between white students and students of color "disappear" when they receive similar levels of preparation in grades nine through 12. Regardless of race or ZIP code, the report concludes that "disparities in academic preparation earlier in students' educational careers" are the most important determinants of college enrollment.
Does this mean racism is not a barrier to higher education? Absolutely not. But the Brookings report tells us that racial prejudice and structural inequalities in education can be diminished with quality preparation.
The report puts it plainly: "Black, Hispanic, and Asian students with similar high school grades, test scores, and course-taking all go to college at about the same rate — a rate about five percentage points higher than white students with similar academic preparation by those measures."
This was not surprising to me. As someone raised in an immigrant home, who qualified for free lunch and went to college with the support of a Pell Grant, I am keenly aware that my path to college was made possible only because I was offered extraordinary educational opportunities. When my youngest sibling started kindergarten, our single mother joined the workforce without a college degree, taking a job as a switchboard operator at a private high school. To our good fortune, the school allowed employees' children to attend for free. That experience unleashed my potential, preparing me for the intellectual rigors of an Ivy League university.
My serendipitous path to college, however, is not a replicable model. The key takeaway of the Brookings report is that quality high school preparation can mitigate the consequences of social inequality. If we accept that conclusion, then we're forced to confront a pernicious truth: Effective academic preparation in grades nine through 12 is more accessible to white students in high-resource communities because our educational resources are allocated by class, which perpetuates social inequality and racial segregation.
So, as a country, we still must address the many ways in which structural inequalities in our society essentially "sort" our young people into opportunity channels that differentially smooth a path to college for some and introduce hostile obstacles for others. And we need to keep investing heavily in higher education access, through vehicles such as the Pell Grant program and federally subsidized loans. Obtaining a college degree is the single most powerful driver of economic mobility for lower-income students.
But colleges and universities also have a role to play. Absent affirmative action policies, institutions can do their part to address this structural inequality by reducing barriers to access for everyone. Since the pandemic began, many schools have eliminated application fees and test score requirements. Partnerships with talent-identification programs in high schools like Posse, QuestBridge, College Track, College Visions and College Possible are an additional way to put college within reach for talented students from under-resourced communities.
Another important consideration will be to ensure our admissions practices consider the whole applicant: their academic preparation, their talents, their skills, and their lived experiences – to the extent we can surmise this information within the bounds of whatever restrictions may be handed down by the Court.
When low-income and first-generation students arrive on campus, we also need to be ready with support to help level the playing field. Examples include orientation programming to demystify college expectations and customs (the so-called "hidden curriculum" of higher education); offering "startup" stipends to ensure access to essentials like laptops and books; a physical space on campus dedicated to supporting student needs; and opportunities for mentorship from faculty and staff who know what it's like to be the first in their families to obtain a degree.
No college or university can single-handedly undo decades of inequality when students arrive on campus. Students from historically excluded groups and lower-income families need better preparation to thrive in college and derive the full benefit of a degree. If the Supreme Court issues the decision many expect, it will be essential that higher-education institutions take even more initiative to attract applicants from all walks of life and to be welcoming places where all students can thrive.
Suzanne M. Rivera is president of Macalester College.