The Supreme Court delivered a landmark ruling this week which struck down affirmative action programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina, effectively eliminating race as a key factor in the admissions process. As a college counselor and woman of color, I have many thoughts about this ruling. Candidly, I’m torn.
It may be helpful to begin by exploring the premise of affirmative action. Since 1969, through both voluntary practices and government policies, higher education has worked to “build classes” that mirror the world, particularly as it pertains to race, bringing opportunities to historically marginalized populations. The premise is sound: there is a benefit for all to having students connect with others that don’t look and think like they do. This connection and interchange leads to teaching moments that create a well-rounded, globally-minded individual.
On many levels, affirmative action accomplished its aim: It brought diversity – particularly racial diversity – onto college campuses across the country, particularly within more selective college environments, where admissions offices sought to level the playing field in terms of access to higher education.
So where’s the opportunity? The word “diversity” is no longer restricted to race as it was in the 1970’s. Diversity now includes gender, age, sexuality, and socioeconomic realities. The University of Pennsylvania describes diversity in terms of “lived experiences“, and I think that’s apt. It would be narrow-minded of us to consider diversity in terms of race alone. While on the surface the Supreme Court ruling may seem like bad news to many, I am hopeful that it offers us the opportunity to consider diversity on a much broader, more inclusive level.
Practically, I don’t think this will change very much about the college admissions process. There are so many factors an admissions office considers when evaluating applicants which extend far beyond race. Schools will still need elite athletes. Another school may need an oboe player to fill a chair. Colleges might need 50 more students who want to be humanities majors to round out their department. For those who have belabored race’s role in the admissions process as a result of affirmative action: colleges are often recruiting to fill a need, which is why the highest academically performing student doesn’t always get accepted.
My advice is for students to work toward a school that will propel them to be the best version of themselves, and that can happen anywhere, whether it’s Merrimack College or Harvard University. We need to avoid getting caught up in the brand value of a particular college’s name. There are tremendously successful people everywhere. How many amazing business leaders, politicians and scholars have graduated from the University of Maryland, Ohio State or from Indiana University? Where you go does not define you. Where you go might offer you a nice network, but my best advice in finding a good college fit is to consider what’s best for each individual student.
On a personal level, my thoughts about the benefits of affirmative action are simple: I want my children to connect with students from all over the world. I want them to be exposed to those from every socioeconomic strata, and from every race, culture, gender and sexual orientation possible. Why? Because I want them to understand what the world looks like so they are better prepared to navigate life. It makes me sad to think that historically marginalized populations feel that access to a level playing field has been lost.
How can we make lemonade out of lemons, so to speak? Instead of seeing this ruling as a victory or loss, let us try to figure out a solution that will make the world, learning communities and future working communities as open, impactful and educational as we can, by finding the right schools for our kids. We need to build a new structure on which to continue to celebrate different lived experiences, whether historically marginalized or not, and continue working toward ensuring that a celebration of diversity and opportunity through a truly holistic admissions process remains a goal for us and for future generations.
Christine Chapman is the founder of Chapman Education, based in Hopkinton. Since 1995, she has guided more than 3,000 students and families through the private school and college admissions processes. She works closely with students and their families to help them secure the best educational fit.