This article was originally published in The Hill.
By Andrew J. Seligsohn and Jamie Merisotis
What will American colleges and universities look like now that the Supreme Court has upended affirmative action? The evidence is clear: As we’ve seen from states that had already banned race-conscious admissions prior to the court’s recent decision, enrollment for students of color will decline. We can avoid going backward only if institutions embrace new approaches for increasing student diversity and abolish advantages for the privileged, such as legacy preferences.
Fortunately, Americans from all political perspectives agree that higher education needs to change to better serve Black students, Hispanic and Latino students, and those from low-income families. As higher education institutions move to comply with the court’s ruling, they should make every effort to enact these broadly popular, common-sense solutions that can continue to advance racial diversity and equity in higher education.
Consider this: a Public Agenda/USA TODAY Hidden Common Ground report found that while substantially fewer Republicans (24 percent) believe racial discrimination makes it more difficult for people of color to get a college education compared to Democrats (72 percent) and Independents (49 percent), there is strong support across the political spectrum for specific policies designed to improve higher education access, affordability and completion. Such policies include interest-free public loans, debt transparency requirements, and increased investment in institutions that help students of color complete their degrees. Support also is strong for policies that provide academic and financial help to students who need it—and for stringent oversight of institutions where students of color graduate at low rates.
Americans are united in identifying higher education funding as an area in dire need of change. College enrollment soared in the mid-20th century—a time of low tuition, high government investment, and increased access to higher education. But the past two decades have seen a significant shift in federal and state support, with overall state funding decreasing after adjusting for enrollment and inflation. Funding for institutions with a better track record of serving students of color—including community colleges, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and other minority-serving institutions—has also fallen, and more often than not, students and families are left to bridge the financial gap.
The report also found that nearly three-quarters of Americans, including most Republicans, support increased state funding for universities and colleges. States should leverage this support to raise and direct public funds to institutions that best serve today’s diverse student body by helping more residents get the education and training they need—and deserve—to thrive.
After the racial reckoning of 2020, HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions have seen a sharp rise in applications and enrollments—a trend likely to continue now that race-conscious admissions practices have been banned. The report found broad bipartisan support for state efforts to improve and expand these institutions. Most Americans, including 83 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of Republicans, also want more oversight of public colleges and universities, which must do more to help Black and brown students complete their degrees.
Higher education access and affordability are important, but without better completion rates for students of color, these efforts will be in vain. More guidance, advising, financial aid, and basic needs support, as well as student-centered learning environments, are needed to ensure students earn high-quality credentials that lead to employment and lifelong opportunity.
The good news: While Americans differ across partisan identities in their overall attitudes toward higher education, significant majorities of both Republicans and Democrats nonetheless agree about how to improve higher education. Three in four Americans favor increased state funding for guidance and advising to support completion for Black and brown students specifically—with 63 percent of Republicans, 71 percent of Independents and 89 percent of Democrats supporting this policy. Public Agenda also found that 69 percent of Americans say their state should increase financial aid for these populations, including more than half of Republicans (54 percent).
The Supreme Court’s limiting of race-conscious admissions will undoubtedly reduce the proportion of students of color at selective universities across America. This makes it even more important for state and institutional leaders to strengthen the far more numerous institutions where most Americans of all racial and ethnic backgrounds pursue post-high school education. Fortunately, broad agreement among Americans of all political perspectives gives policymakers, institution leaders, and employers a mandate to act—to take the substantive steps that can inch us closer to equity in higher education despite the legal setbacks.
Jamie Merisotis, an international leader in higher education, human work, philanthropy, and public policy, has been Lumina Foundation’s president and CEO since 2008. His most recent book is “Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines.” Andrew Seligsohn, (Ph.D.), is a political scientist who has served as Public Agenda’s president since 2021. You can find him on Twitter at @AJSeligsohn. Public Agenda is online at www.PublicAgenda.org or on Twitter and Facebook at @publicagenda.