Supreme Court Roils US Colleges With One-Two Punch on Race, Debt

With two landmark decisions in just over 24 hours, the US Supreme Court could reshape higher education.

(Bloomberg) — With two landmark decisions in just over 24 hours, the US Supreme Court could reshape higher education.

The rulings, one curtailing the consideration of applicants’ race in admissions, followed by a rejection of student-debt relief, have thrown into question how universities will diversify their ranks and dashed hopes for borrowers eligible for as much as $20,000 in federal loan forgiveness.

Affirmative action’s end may limit options for students from historically disadvantaged groups. Coupled with the ruling on loans, which would have provided the most relief to poorer borrowers, the decisions deal a blow to African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and other underrepresented minorities.

“It’s a huge setback for equity, especially for disadvantaged communities, whether that disadvantage is race or income,” said Bob Shireman, a former deputy undersecretary in the Education Department during the Obama administration. “Those of us who work on education equity are going to have to triple or quadruple our efforts.”

The decisions, part of a rightward swing by a court that pairs six committed conservatives with three liberals, may ultimately exacerbate inequality and make it more difficult for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to advance through education. Companies will have a harder time recruiting the diverse workforces they crave, and the pipeline of talent from elite universities may become more homogeneous.

Yet education professionals don’t see this as the death knell for their diversity goals and vow not to let it keep students from attending college. 

While universities can no longer give an admissions advantage to underrepresented minorities based solely on the color of their skin or their ethnicity, they could favor other measures — such as household income or homeownership  — that can serve as an effective proxy to draw the same students.

“We will work vigorously to preserve — and, indeed, grow — the diversity of our community while fully respecting the law as announced,” Princeton University said in a statement.

Students could still write about their race in application essays, but admissions officers wouldn’t be able to use that as a factor in deciding who to let in, according to the ruling on affirmative action.

“Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote. But “universities may not simply establish through application essays or other means the regime we hold unlawful today.”’

The lawsuit over affirmative action argued that Harvard University punished Asian Americans by assigning them lower ratings on leadership and likability during the admission process, while automatically giving preferences to Black and Hispanic applicants. 

Ishan Kanaskar, a rising high school senior in San Antonio, said he disagreed with the ruling and is worried it will reduce diversity. Still, he said he’s now more likely to mention his background as an Asian-American in his college application essay. Previously, he had worried about creating a disadvantage for himself.

“I want to show that I’m proud of where I come from,” said Kanaskar, 17, whose dream is to study political science at Georgetown University. “I’m not going to hide parts of my identity just because of applications.”

Erica Rosales, who runs College Match Los Angeles, a nonprofit organization that helps low-income students gain admission to top colleges, said she’s concerned the end of affirmative action would hurt African Americans and Latinos. 

She also cited the negative consequences the loan ruling will have on young professionals with school debt. Four years after obtaining with a bachelor’s degree, Black borrowers have an average of $52,726 in education debt, compared to $28,006 for the typical White graduate, according to a White House fact sheet.

“I worry that my students won’t have the same opportunities,” said Rosales, 46, who added that she benefited from affirmative action at Wellesley College. 

Advocates for student loan forgiveness had said that it would help some 43 million borrowers stabilize finances and get ahead.

Hours after the ruling, President Joe Biden said he would seek a new legal avenue for student debt relief under the Higher Education Act and would create a 12-month “on-ramp repayment program.” It would help borrowers reduce the threat of default, which can scar credit ratings and hamper future home ownership.

Whether or not Biden’s debt-relief effort is ultimately successful, it wouldn’t do anything to solve the root issue of the rising cost of college, according to Michael Poliakoff, the chief executive officer of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which works with education leaders.

“I’m hoping the decision will encourage colleges to moderate prices by controlling their spending,” Poliakoff said.

The Supreme Court rulings are a setback in the fight to increase access and diversity in higher education, according to Cara McClellan, the director of the Advocacy for Racial and Civil Justice Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania and an associate professor of law.

“What we really need to be doing at this point in our country is opening the gates wider, not rolling back policies that promote access and opportunity,” she said.

The student loan decision has forced Kanaskar to consider colleges in his home state. “University of Texas is like a greater option for me now simply because of how much cheaper it would be,” he said.

–With assistance from Emily Birnbaum.

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