We need everybody who values diversity, equity and inclusion to step up.

By Debra Nealy, executive director, Step Ahead Scholars; Celeste Montgomery, intern and alumna, Step Ahead Scholars and student, University of Chicago; Enmanuel Acosta Aparicio, alumnus, Step Ahead Scholars and student, University of Chicago; Nia Bellamy, intern, Step Ahead Scholars and student, Georgia Tech

Since 2010, Step Ahead Scholars has empowered talented students to and through college, with a 95% graduation rate. Although not exclusively, Step Ahead Scholars has a strong track record of working with underrepresented students—those that identify as Black, Indigenous, or other students of color, first generation, immigrants and refugees, and those who come from low-income families—to acceptance and graduation from selective institutions. The Supreme Court’s recent decision on affirmative action left us feeling both frustrated and worried for the students we serve.

The gap between socioeconomic groups is already palpable, particularly at the selective, predominantly white institutions (PWIs) that this ruling will affect the most. Often, students from underrepresented backgrounds often come from under-resourced schools and communities, where they have less access to rigorous courses and personalized college access guidance. It is common that students from these backgrounds are impacted by the phenomenon known as under-matching, which results in high-achieving students selecting less competitive colleges due to lack of exposure and information. On selective campuses where students of color may make up a small percentage of the student body, it’s easy to feel isolated and pressured to represent an entire community of people that look like you but aren’t in the room with you.

Affirmative action is far from perfect, and it’s not the only solution, but it was at least a step in the right direction towards making campuses more diverse and inclusive. It at least gave more students a foot in the door who are already facing complex and interconnected barriers to higher education attainment. Students of color want to be evaluated holistically as an applicant, beyond but inclusive of race. Affirmative action opened the door to that opportunity.

Knowing that the road to economic stability runs through higher education, students are encouraged and determined to pursue it. It is unfair that specific student groups face additional obstacles to obtaining the benefits that stem from higher education. Whether it be a certificate, credential, specific skill set, two- or four-year degree, higher education is required to build economic well-being that leads to equitable life outcomes. 

Losing affirmative action feels like taking several giant steps backwards. 

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman Supreme Court Justice, called it out directly, stating that, “deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it irrelevant in life.” We don’t live in a colorblind society, or a meritocracy. We live in a world where some students attend well-resourced schools and come from families with the means to support them with private tutors, college application coaches and other opportunities to bolster their academic profiles and college applications, while others don’t. We’ve lost affirmative action, but the reasons for creating it still exist. 

What the Supreme Court has effectively done is add fuel to the fire when it comes to race. This decision puts a burden on colleges and their admissions departments, creating a risk that they are worried about accepting too many students of color in proportion to how many white students or students that are not considered underrepresented. This has the potential to create a firestorm within administrations regarding the expense to litigate cases that charge colleges with utilizing race as a barometer in admissions. Frankly, this will create a backlash against colleges that are working to make their campuses more diverse and inclusive.

This decision reinforces the messages these students already hear too often from society, and may discourage them from applying to selective schools.

Despite all of the barriers, students that identify as Black, Indigenous, or other students of color, first generation students, and students who come from low-income families are often succeeding at high levels in selective schools, being accepted into competitive programs, graduating at the top of their classes, and excelling in their careers. Many give back to their communities in profound ways. If these students weren’t accepted, would we miss out on their incredible contributions?

For instance, Enmanuel is originally from Cuba, and arrived in the United States as a political refugee. Six-and-a-half years ago, he didn’t know much English, and was only able to fit one night of SAT studying into his schedule between working two jobs and attending high school. Now, attending the University of Chicago, he’s a part of a cohort pursuing both a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s in international relations. After graduation, he plans to attend law school so he can help families with experiences like his own. 

Nia is majoring in literature, media and communication with a focus on media and design at Georgia Tech. She plans to improve representation in media and entertainment, so that more people have access and see themselves on screen. In the meantime, based on her college experience, she’s working to make Georgia Tech’s campus more inclusive and welcoming for all. Celeste, a QuestBridge scholar attending the University of Chicago, has reflected on these dynamics and decided to intern at Step Ahead Scholars to ensure more students like her have the exposure, guidance and mentorship needed to pursue full experience postsecondary education.

If community members want to support the students who will be affected by this decision, they should start by supporting community-based organizations like Step Ahead Scholars. We disrupt barriers, change systems and limiting beliefs from the bottom up, not the top down. And those of us working at grassroots organizations with limited funding are committed to the needs of students now more than ever in the wake of this decision. We need funding, volunteers, sweat equity donations, and more folks in the schools seeing the challenges and working towards partnerships that build solutions and change lives for the students and their families who need it most.

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