The affirmative action ban is not an insurmountable setback for higher education access

As institutions across the US reassess their admissions practices following the ban on affirmative action, the president of Arizona State University Michael Crow points to many other ways institutions can increase the diversity of their students

Michael Crow's avatar
3 Aug 2023
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Supreme Court holds affirmative action unconstitutional, so what’s next?
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Multi-racial students walking arm in arm on graduation day

The US Supreme Court ruling prohibiting the use of race in determining college admissions is a setback in the ongoing fight to expand higher education access, but not an insurmountable one. America’s traditional “elite” institutions face the most significant impact, but universities with broader admissions standards also need to consider its implications.

At a time when innovation is driving massive change, college demand and learner diversity is peaking, and the national six-year college completion rate has stalled at 62 per cent. The risk of the Supreme Court decision discouraging students from pursuing higher learning is a reality we cannot afford to ignore.

Debates about education and social advancement, and the need for egalitarian institutions capable of creating and diffusing knowledge, date back to America’s founding. Education has played a critical role in the evolution of our democracy yet prioritising equal access to education for all remains elusive.

Affirmative action allowed many marginalised learners access to college, but it was not designed to be the best and only option.

Thirteen years ago, Arizona voters banned state entities, including public universities, from considering race, ethnicity or gender during admissions. However, Arizona State University’s 2002 commitment to inclusion and excellence for all, regardless of background, income or location, meant that the new law had little impact on our efforts. Building steadily since then, we have managed to become one of the largest – and most diverse – universities in the country. Our focused actions have included:

  • Making access and inclusion lead priorities in ASU’s first official charter
  • Fostering a student population that mirrors the ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of Arizona
  • Implementing Access ASU, a state-wide outreach and college readiness initiative that leverages extensive K-12 education and community partnerships to prepare all students to enrol and succeed in higher education
  • Transitioning from a “low cost/low quality” model to a “moderate cost/high quality” one that includes significant university investment in student financial aid and an assurance that finances will not be a barrier to attendance. Approximately 90 per cent of Arizona resident undergraduate students receive scholarships or grants, and the average tuition Arizona residents pay after gift aid is $3,866 per year. Nearly 45 per cent of ASU students graduate with no debt
  • Creating the ASU Preparatory Academy and ASU Prep Digital, high-quality and inclusive in-person and digital charter school programmes that prepare K-12 pupils for successful college attendance.

Since 2013, our student population has grown by more than 85 per cent, with 140,000-plus students enrolled in-person or online. That includes an increase of nearly 120 per cent in Black students, 130 per cent in Latino students and more than 122 per cent in Asian students. Enrolled students who identify as two or more races increased by more than 150 per cent.

Instead of collectively throwing up our hands in frustration, the Supreme Court ruling presents an important chance for higher education to change course. It is a time to reassess institutional values and missions, and to shed elite admission practices and “high cost equals high quality” assumptions that do not serve current societal needs. It is also an opportunity to explore and implement new systems that trade cookie-cutter paradigms for designs that are responsive to local and national social, cultural and economic demands.

Now more than ever, America’s colleges and universities need to get creative. The time has come for higher education to “double down” on its commitment to innovation and the success of our democracy in order to keep the US moving forward. The silver lining is that the Supreme Court ruling does not limit higher education efforts to attract, engage or retain diverse student applicants. The question then is, are colleges and universities willing to undertake massive change?

Here are five things college and universities can do to help navigate the Supreme Court ruling:

1. Drop the scarcity mindset

For too long, higher education has perpetuated the false perception that exclusivity amplifies worth. “Elite” colleges and universities have cultivated valuable, globally recognised brands around this concept, but in reality, broad inclusion and comprehensive excellence are not mutually independent. The sooner that society lets go of this manufactured scarcity model, the sooner that institutions can restructure to help meet real-world needs with quality education for diverse populations, at scale.

2. Decide, do, repeat

Do not assume that institutional support for educational access is obvious and recognised across the organisation. Revisit your foundational concepts and if serving diverse learners is a serious priority, write it, say it and show it. Not once. Not as a catchphrase or a campaign. The vision needs to be clear, ubiquitous and embedded in actions and communications institution-wide. Be sure to devote equivalent attention to sharing examples of how your commitment is manifesting itself.

3. Partner, listen and learn

Overcoming realities created by centuries of systematic inequality is not something that can be solved by one institution. The scope of action and creativity needed to dismantle the barriers to college and design pathways to greater graduate diversity at scale requires collaboration. Join a group with similar values and objectives, like the University Innovation Alliance, an active network of universities that share information and ideas for supporting broad student success that drives social and economic mobility. If the UIA is not the right fit, engage with others to create what you need.

4. Be open to change

To educate America’s growing number of diverse learners requires the exploration of new funding models, increased institutional investment in financial aid, faculty and programmes, and expanded outreach to economically disadvantaged students and their families. Progress in access and in affordability must go hand-in-hand in order to educate our nation’s learners at scale.

5. Encourage innovation

We know where yesterday’s mindset and models have landed us. We know they are ill-equipped to get our nation where it needs to be. Instead of focusing solely on what was, seek inspiration and nurture a culture of innovation capable of developing new solutions. Whether it is enhancing college readiness for K-12 learners, developing innovative ways to support more first-generation students, designing safe spaces or new communication tools, we have the freedom to attract and guide learners in many different, and likely more effective, ways. The challenge is ours to take if we are willing to change ourselves to change the future.

Michael M. Crow is president of Arizona State University.

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