Affirmative action is destined to soon die a swift and merciless death at the hands of American conservatism. First, a lawsuit against Harvard’s allegedly race-based admission process is working its way up to the Supreme Court. Second, and particularly fatal, the Supreme Court’s new conservative majority in the wake of Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination will almost certainly rule against Harvard, which could outlaw affirmative action in college admissions.
The end of the program will certainly cause renewed hardship for marginalized groups, but it simultaneously offers us an opportunity to focus on the deep-seated inequalities that made affirmative action so necessary in the first place.
Despite the controversy it attracts, affirmative action has boosted minority enrollment in higher education. The diverging fortunes of black students at Stanford and Cal clearly demonstrate this. After California banned affirmative action for all state schools in the late 90s, the share of African-American students at Berkeley fell from seven percent to around three percent. Twenty years later, black enrollment at Cal still hasn’t recovered. By contrast, our very own Stanford, which as a private university was not affected by California’s ban on affirmative action, has managed to maintain a rate of around 6% black enrollment. While the treatment of minorities at Stanford is far from perfect, these numbers powerfully illustrate that affirmative action does indeed boost minority enrollment.
However, affirmative action has always been too little for too few. Restricted to America’s elite highly-selective universities, few reap the benefits of the program. The students who don’t apply to the Harvards and Stanfords of this world – a.k.a. basically everybody – are unlikely to benefit from the policy because not only do less selective schools have no reason to apply it, but in addition a rising number of states – among them population-rich states such as Texas and Florida – have banned the practice for their public universities.
Even the lucky few who do benefit from affirmative action gain little more than an entry card to an elite university. After all, success at these schools depends on more than just an acceptance letter (as many of us have painfully realized). Indeed, across the board, black students at highly selective schools have significantly lower graduation rates than their Caucasian peers. A case in point, the graduation rate gap between white and black students at Berkeley is a staggering 17 percent, but other schools do not fare well either: the gap at Stanford stands at four percent, UChicago seven, and MIT twelve.
Not only has affirmative action been too little, it has also been painfully late. If we really want to address America’s vast racial and class inequalities, we have to look beyond college admissions. Ultimately, the problems that affirmative action seeks – and fails – to remedy are the profound failures of America’s public-school system.
The inequality in the American education system is almost comical in its extent. America, unlike any other OECD country, sources about 40 percent of its public school budget from local property taxes. Property values obviously vary enormously by area, meaning that even schools that are in close proximity can have vastly different financial resources. Some of the inequality between school districts is levelled out by the state, but no mechanisms correct for the disparities between states. Funding for public schools varies from just below 7 thousand dollars per student per year in Utah to more than 20 thousand dollars in New York. This is not what an equal shot at success in life looks like.
The dismal state of America’s educational system has grown even worse following cutbacks in the wake of the Great Recession. The lack of funding has led to absurdities such as cutting one teaching day each week. In Oregon and Colorado, among other states, as many as 1 in 5 schools now have this four-day week. Equipment is in dire need, teachers are overworked and underpaid, and sometimes there is not even enough food. In these conditions, schools are unable to carry out their basic educational mission.
The Trump administration is determined to make matters even worse. It has sped up the vicious circle of underperformance and poverty by rewarding high-performing schools with cash, effectively taking away funding from schools that are already struggling.
Needless to say, financially punishing underperforming schools is not standard procedure in other countries. In Berlin, my hometown, for instance, schools with high proportions of migrant students or difficult economic backgrounds get extra funding, despite – no, actually because – they are performing worse than other schools.
With the school system in grim shape, those most affected by its shortcomings are the groups that already live on the margins. Families with strong financial or educational background might be able to mitigate some of the effects of underfunded schools through paying for expensive private tuition, or escaping the system altogether by sending their children to the gilded private schools of America. These opportunities are simply not viable for communities with fewer resources. The consequences are stark: people of color and poor people suffer the most from the system’s failures.
Affirmative action for college admissions has thus always just been a fig leaf covering the failures of a system that is stacked against poor people of color from a very early age. Affirmative action is surely better than nothing. But once it is gone, the energy that has been consistently put into keeping it alive for so long should be redirected towards fighting for changes that will truly overturn the pervasive inequality of the American education system.
Above all, intervention needs to happen long before students even begin to think about college. The achievement gap between Caucasian and African-American students opens up so early that by 3rd grade it is effectively irreversible.
To tackle the problem, policy solutions must focus on Kindergarten, pre- and grade-school. Making day care more affordable and providing comprehensive after-school programs is crucial to preparing students for success in high-school and beyond, especially in cases where parents have to juggle multiple jobs to survive. Yet, afternoon activities are usually the first to be cut when funding runs short and affordable childcare is nothing but a wild dream.
There is great opportunity for reform. Recent teacher strikes showed us that the fight to increase funding for public schools can be successful. With the economy booming, it is time to reverse decade old funding cuts, build programs that benefit marginalized students, support the weakest schools, and provide free or at least affordable daycare.
While outlawing affirmative action will indubitably have adverse effects on already marginalized communities, it should at the very least serve as a call to action to build an education system that works for all Americans – not just for Harvard students.
Photo: Affirmative Action Demonstration in 2003, Joseluis89