An interview with Debra Humphreys by Mike Scutari

This article was originally published in Inside Philanthropy.

In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s June 29 decision to end affirmative action in college admissions, a group of foundations quickly issued a joint statement condemning the decision. “The Supreme Court’s decision impedes colleges and universities from selecting their own student bodies and fully addressing systemic racial inequalities that persist,” the statement read. “The ruling threatens to return this nation to a time when education and opportunity are reserved for a privileged class.” The statement now has more than 140 signatories, including the Kresge, Lumina, Ford, Barr, Mellon, and MacArthur Foundations, as well as Borealis Philanthropy, Democracy Fund, Omidyar Network, and Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies.

Almost a month later, funding leaders — particularly those who work on diversity and opportunity in education — are still navigating a transformed and uncertain landscape.

“The decision poses serious threats because they are putting a chill on efforts that have been proven to increase student success,” said Debra Humphreys, Lumina Foundation vice president of strategic engagement, in an email to IP. “They also are targeting specific curricular reforms designed to teach all students about our nation’s history of racial discrimination and struggles for justice, as well as the skills necessary to function in an increasingly diverse society.”

Lumina, which aims to increase the proportion of Americans with degrees, certificates and other high-quality credentials to 60% by 2025, released statements expressing its support for affirmative action before and after the decision.

Philip Brian Harper, Mellon Foundation higher learning program director, expressed similar concerns. “While Mellon is not in the admissions business, we are concerned that our grantee institutions may feel impeded in their own attempts to build thriving campus communities characterized by robust inquiry and maximum multivocality, both of which are essential to a healthy democratic society,” he said via email. “The court itself has affirmed the value of diversity on campus, and it is crucial that our colleges and universities not take their eyes off that prize.”

Meanwhile, Bill Moses, managing director for the Kresge Foundation’s education program, which supports postsecondary access and success for low-income, first-generation and underrepresented students, told me he’s concerned that fellow grantmakers will take their eyes off the prize. “I’m worried that a lot of funders may pull back because they don’t want to cross a legal line, so they’ll be complacent rather than try to find ways to get a diverse class by thinking in different ways,” he said.

Sector leaders are clearly disheartened and concerned about how the decision will impact their ability to carry out their missions. At the same time, they’re not backing down.

I reached out to Humphreys, Harper and Moses to dig deeper into this issue — how philanthropy can avoid complacency and remain vigilant in its efforts to boost diversity in higher ed in a post-affirmative-action world. I also encourage readers to check out our State of American Philanthropy white paper on higher ed giving, as it tackles many of the following action items in greater detail.

1. Support historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), tribal colleges, Hispanic-serving institutions and other minority-serving institutions

While one of the more encouraging news items in recent years has been MacKenzie Scott’s unrestricted funding for minority-serving institutions, she can’t do it alone. Philanthropy has to step up and support these engines of economic mobility. “If there are going to be fewer students of color in highly selective institutions or selective institutions, then let’s make sure the schools they are going to are getting as much support as possible so that those students graduate,” Moses said. Humphreys cited Lumina’s HBCU Adult Learner Initiative, which assists HBCUs in building their capacity to serve more adult learners, while a 2023 Candid and Association of Black Foundation Executives report found that Mellon was the second biggest supporter of HBCUs among private foundations from 2015–2019.

2. Support race-based scholarship funds

While the Supreme Court’s ruling does not mention financial aid, it does create legal uncertainty around the future of race-based scholarships, with some states and schools preemptively taking steps to stop them. But there are several scholarship-based funds offering such financial aid that can and should be supported, with a number of them backing students at HBCUs and minority-serving institutions, and generally playing an important role in navigating the future of diversity in higher ed.

Organizations like the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, the United Negro College Fund, APIA Scholars, Hispanic Scholarship Fund and the American Indian College Fund raise money to provide financial aid for students from their respective communities. “It’s within their legal rights — at least for now — to do so, and it’s something that can be supported, because those institutions can ensure that more students of color get into college and ensure they have the wherewithal to cover the costs,” Moses said.

3. Fund community colleges

With a few exceptions, we haven’t seen individual donors fund community colleges in a way that’s remotely commensurate with their support for four-year institutions. That needs to change. The Supreme Court ruling primarily impacts highly selective universities; meanwhile, community colleges offer one of the most accessible paths to higher education and upward mobility. “Community colleges are an affordable way to get a student in the door,” Moses said. Launched in 2021, Kresge’s Shaping Equitable and Sustainable College Promise Programs: CoPro2.0 is a $2.6 million grant initiative that aims to strengthen tuition-free community college across the U.S.

4. Fund programs that boost access and readiness

Moses said that in the last several years, funders, on the whole, have shifted focus toward college success and away from access. While college success is clearly a laudable goal, this disinvestment in access became apparent during the pandemic when fewer students applied for college.

While the Supreme Court decision applied mainly to elite and selective universities, it will nonetheless compound access challenges by “dampening enthusiasm and ambition for students who don’t apply because they think they may not get in,” Moses said. “It’s important funders make sure students who may fear that they’re not welcome or may face hostility on campus have the confidence they can go, and are making sensible decisions and getting the support from advisors that students at affluent schools get.”

Bloomberg Philanthropies is an impactful player in the area of student access and readiness, having invested $86 million to train college advisers and provide one-on-one college advising to about 63,000 low-income students since 2014 through its College Point initiative.

Humphreys, Harper and Moses stressed that their organizations’ work transcends efforts to help racially diverse students attend and succeed at elite schools. “We will continue to develop a broad approach beyond just the question of racial equity in selective admissions to help make the entire system of higher education more affordable, accessible and supportive of the success of Black, Latino and Hispanic and Native American students,” Humphreys said.

5. But don’t forget college success programs

Funders should also ramp up support for organizations committed to helping students of color graduate. Humphreys pointed me to Lumina’s support for the University of Texas system’s Equitable Student Pathways, an initiative that uses sophisticated data to identify and remove barriers for students of color in specific majors.

Moses cited effective organizations focused on college success like Achieving the Dream, which focuses on helping community college students; and University Innovation Alliance, a coalition of public research universities committed to increasing the number and diversity of college graduates in the U.S.; MDRC, a nonpartisan policy research organization that co-publishes the College Completion Strategy Guide, which provides policymakers with guidance on strategies to increase college completion; and the National Association of System Heads (NASH), which created that NASH Improvement Model to accelerate the pace of transfer student success interventions.

6. Develop and support leaders of color in academia

Another way to support diversity in higher education is to encourage and develop diverse leadership in academia who are committed to that goal, and can also serve as role models and mentors for BIPOC students.

“Increasing diversity within the U.S. academy was a primary objective of Mellon’s Higher Learning program prior to the Supreme Court’s decision, and it remains so now,” Harper told me. “Our most exemplary initiative in this regard is the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program, which, for over 30 years, has helped to ensure that as diverse a cohort of students as possible pursues doctoral study in the humanities and subsequently joins the professoriate.”

More recently, Mellon has made big investments in academic leadership development programs that are designed not only to enhance demographic diversity among the ranks of academic leadership — deans, provosts, presidents — but also to ensure that more humanities scholars in general are tapped to lead the nation’s major research institutions.

“The best way for funders — and for higher ed institutions themselves — to further diversity, whether before or after the Supreme Court decision, is to identify and nurture leaders who are themselves committed to that objective, whatever their own demographic profile,” Harper said. “This is a guiding principle for Mellon Higher Learning, and it will continue to be so for years to come.”

7. Promote cross-sector dialogue and knowledge sharing

Part of the difficulty funders and universities are currently facing stems from the significant legal uncertainty about what schools and other institutions can and cannot do. Philanthropy can support work that provides greater legal clarity around what funders can do in a post-affirmative-action climate. Humphreys noted that Lumina grantee Education Counsel brings together higher ed leaders “to create communities of practice and discussion around ways to protect diversity in higher education and higher ed admissions while adhering to the new landscape the court’s opinion has created.” The foundation has supported Ed Counsel’s efforts to provide an analysis of the decision and preliminary guidance to the field in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision.

Similarly, Kresge is helping to cover the costs of an upcoming Department of Education National Summit on Equal Opportunity in Higher Education convening to explore strategies and resources that expand student access and to ensure, to quote Moses, that “there aren’t 4,000 interpretations of the law and that people are operating within the law.”

8. Dial back giving for granite countertops

One of the biggest obstacles preventing low-income students from attending college is cost. Funders can adopt these action items, but they’ll have far less impact if tuition continues to rise beyond the rate of inflation and financial aid fails to keep pace. Funders can’t set tuition rates, but they can ensure that their gifts don’t needlessly increase costs by bankrolling expensive and ostentatious capital projects.

This is one area where alumni donors have a disproportionately large impact since they’re more inclined to bankroll students’ luxurious residential experience. “Residential facilities are critical to higher ed, and somebody pays for that — either students or donors,” Moses said. “It would be better if a donor put some of that money into financial aid or research instead of granite countertops.”

9. Dig into advocacy work

Funders can support organizations pushing for policy change and use their bully pulpit to advance priorities. Tactics include supporting groups developing new approaches to more equitable admissions, like Lumina grantee the National Association for College Admission and Counseling; supporting policies that facilitate transfers; and pushing for free community college and effective transfer pathways from community colleges to four-year schools.

Funders can also encourage state legislators to increase funding for public institutions, which Moses called “the secret sauce” that drove the American economy from the 1950s through the 1970s. That being said, funders will find that their hands will be tied. Virtually every state in the country has a balanced budget amendment, which means states can’t go into debt to fund public education. Instead, they push the debt load onto families. “It’s the only state service that requires citizens to borrow money,” Moses said, “and it allows the state to balance the budget and cut taxes.”

Funders can encourage university administrators to remove barriers to access. Many in philanthropy have called for the elimination of legacy admissions, where admissions officers show a preference to applicants on the basis of their familial relationship to alumni of that institution; they similarly call for an end to early binding decisions, which tend to reserve spots for students from families that can afford to pay exorbitant tuition fees. “A shocking 50% of students at highly selective institutions (defined as the Ivy Plus group) benefited from either legacy or binding early admission, and in many cases, from both,” Moses said. “These policies disproportionately benefit white and affluent students and are a key reason why top colleges and universities enroll far too few low-income students and students of color.”

This an area where funders’ grantmaking and policy work intersect. In 2022, Kresge made a grant to Education Reform Now to research “information gaps” between legacy admissions and early binding decisions, develop policy proposals, and create a communications plan to inform opinion leaders and policymakers at the national, state and higher education institutional levels using the findings and recommendations.

Lastly, funders can nudge administrators to reorient recruiting efforts toward students attending inner city and rural schools, and cease participation in university rankings — especially the one conjured up by U.S. News and World Report. “We’ve been thinking about ways higher education funders can discourage a reliance on this beauty contest that has really undermined American higher education policy,” Moses said.

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