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The legacy of affirmative action and what losing it may mean for minorities

On Oct. 31, the Supreme Court held a hearing regarding the possible jeopardization of affirmative action. Several months later, the discussion continues, threatening many minority college applicants’ ability to achieve upwards social mobility.

Alongside fly-in programs, scholarships and more, affirmative action in college admissions is expected to be overturned or rolled back by the Supreme Court in June, and for many minority students, this loss can be devastating. 

But what is affirmative action? Affirmative action is a policy in admissions—especially in education and employment—where the gender, sexuality, race, creed or nationality of an applicant is taken into account with the objective of promoting equality and making up for historic wrongs to women and minority communities. Opportunities would be created for these people that are socioeconomically disadvantaged, who often do not have the same privileges that men and majority groups do.

A research paper entitled “Wealth Inequality is a Barrier to Education and Social Mobility” outlines one of these privileges: family wealth.

“Family wealth is strongly associated with both higher educational attainment and upward educational mobility, suggesting that family wealth is an important factor in promoting greater educational achievement,” the authors wrote.

For applicants that do not come from a high-income background—typically minorities—competing with those that do might be difficult. Many avenues for academic growth like tutoring or college preparatory classes are blocked by a person’s ability to pay for them.

That is not to say that minorities cannot compete academically with majorities in college admissions. Just because a person cannot afford tutoring does not mean that they cannot reach success later in life; they just have to work harder.

But why is that the case? People cannot control the circumstances they were born into. Why do the minorities have to put in the extra hours and not the majorities?

This is why affirmative action was established. With it in place, students who were blocked from going to a good school because they were not as lucky as other kids are now able to reach their full potential at quality colleges and make a life for themselves. After all, education pays.

Even students that do not identify as a minority benefit from a more diverse classroom. People go to schools to learn not only from their teachers but from each other. Exposing students to the different perspectives and experiences of their peers will cultivate an open mindset and further development of communication skills.

“Decades of research in higher education show that classmates of the direct beneficiaries [of affirmative action] also benefit. These students have more positive racial attitudes toward racial minorities, they report greater cognitive capacities, they even seem to participate more civically when they leave college,” wrote Leah Shafer in an article for Usable Knowledge, a publication based in Harvard Graduate School of Education.

On top of that, representation in higher education and the workplace encourages people to strive for similar success. Gaurav Khanna, assistant professor of economics at the University of California San Diego (UCSD), did a study on whether affirmative action incentivizes schooling.

“In the policy space, people have made claims that affirmative action lowers standards and the learning gains for underrepresented students who will ‘no longer work as hard.’ My research suggests the opposite,” Khanna told the University of California San Diego Today. “Affirmative action makes going to a good college much more attainable, and actually encourages minority groups to work harder to get into such schools. Without affirmative action, many colleges may not appear attainable, and it may discourage students from even trying.”

Still, affirmative action remains controversial. One of the main criticisms of affirmative action is that it is only a crutch, placing minority students in classes that are too difficult for them. Because they had to rely on their ethnicity to be admitted rather than solely their merits, they are unprepared for the rigor of post-secondary education. This is known as “mismatching.”

These critics are not wrong. Economist Harry J. Holzer analyzes these statistics in “The economic impact of affirmative action in the U.S.

“​​While minority students admitted to universities under affirmative action have weaker grades and higher dropout rates than their white counterparts, both their graduation rates and later salaries seem to rise as a result of these policies,” Holzer wrote in the study.

It is true: affirmative action is a crutch. But it is a crutch that has proven invaluable in making success equally achievable across all genders, sexualities, races, creeds or nationalities. Because of this, these women and minorities were able to achieve upwards social mobility for themselves and for following generations.

Affirmative action has seen many marked improvements for women especially. As reported in a research paper by activist Tim Wise, thanks to affirmative action and civil rights protections, women of all colors’ presence in previously restricted careers—architecture, medicine, law, business management and more—has increased remarkably. 

But is it really enough? With affirmative action, women and minorities have been able to transform higher education and the workplace into an environment that is much more accepting and diverse. Despite that, minorities still account for a disproportionate number of the unemployed and workers of low-paying jobs compared to majorities.

With affirmative action, minorities would be able to create a future where affirmative action is no longer needed. That the next generation of minority college applicants no longer needs affirmative action to compete with majorities and attain upwards social mobility will mean that affirmative action is successful.

But we are not there yet, and now that future is at risk. With the conservative justice votes to back it, the potential loss of affirmative action may mean the establishment of a less representative graduating class—the decreased diversity in public universities in California, one of the states that banned affirmative action, is evidence of this.

Affirmative action is a highly-debated topic for a reason. Even so, you cannot deny that it has opened many doors that were previously closed for minorities and for women. But with it now in danger, we hope that its legacy—the diversification of higher education and the workplace—will live on.

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