Black college students in Atlanta are not mincing words after last month’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling to end affirmative action in higher education. They say the decision — which limits colleges from considering race in admissions — is just another in a long list of challenges keeping scholars of color from gaining access to colleges and universities.
Caela Holness, a freshman biology major at Georgia Tech, had only been on campus for three weeks when she heard the news. In 2022, Georgia Tech admitted only 21% of applicants, making it the 49th-hardest school in the country to attend. Only 7.6% of the current student population is Black.
“It’s sad that they’re specifically targeting race-based admissions and not going after things like legacy, donations, and networking,” Holness said. “It’s a very big setback for … Black students who have worked hard, come from low-income homes.”
Though affirmative action isn’t a factor at institutions governed by the University System of Georgia since 2000, other students attending predominantly white institutions in the city worry the ruling could discourage them from applying altogether. There is also some concern from educators nationwide about how the ruling could impact historically Black colleges and universities.
Affirmative action and other programs in Georgia
After hearing two cases — Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College and Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. University of North Carolina — the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 and 6-2, respectively, to strike down the nearly half-century-old program.
In the 237-page opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “Because Harvard and
UNC’s admissions programs lack sufficiently focused and measurable objectives warranting the use of race, unavoidably employ race in a negative manner, involve racial stereotyping, and lack meaningful endpoints, those admissions programs cannot be reconciled with the guarantees of the Equal Protection Clause.”
The decision could mean less enrollment for Black and brown students applying to some of the country’s most elite colleges.
In 2000, a federal lawsuit against the University of Georgia challenged the school’s policy which previously allowed 10%-15% of students to be accepted based on race and resulted in all 26 University System of Georgia institutions eliminating race-based admissions.
To promote diversity and inclusion, some institutions utilize strategies like automatic admission for the top two graduates of any Georgia-accredited high school to boost minority and rural student enrollment.
Henok Alemu, a junior computer science major at Georgia Tech, benefitted from the school’s Scholars Program, which offers admission to valedictorians and salutatorians in the state. Alemu was the salutatorian at Hapeville Charter Career Academy in 2021. He says the need for initiatives like this one is paramount.
“Coming from where I’m from, my high school was significantly less funded,” Alemu said. “Affirmative action kind of helps bridge that gap because it takes into account the lower socioeconomic situations of minorities and helps them compete with white students generally. I think a lot of people that have the merit but don’t have all the opportunities will miss out on a lot of chances because they simply just will be lacking the help.”
A widening gap
Makayla Williams, a junior majoring in mathematics at Emory University, says that the gap between minority and white students only widens thanks to factors such as inflation and growing student loan debt.
“It’s like we, as Black students, are already competing twice as hard to be here,” she said. “We are taking on debt with hopes of getting jobs good enough to live with inflation. These degrees are major life investments to us, and by taking affirmative action away, it’s like you are failing to acknowledge how hard we worked and how much we give up just to be in the same rooms as you.”
Janelle Cai agrees with Williams. The freshmen psychology major at Emory says the rollback is a part of larger systemic issues that Black students continuously face when deciding to pursue higher education.
“How is it that every time Black people find themselves trying to reach new levels, these systems continue to find a way to keep us down,” she asked.
Ki’Ya Wright, a sophomore general studies major at Georgia State University, believes that the rollback follows a historical pattern of obstacles faced by Black students during their pursuit of higher education.
“I feel like as African Americans, we’ve had a lot of pushback, and policies like affirmative action are meant to help and improve our lives and even the playing field between our counterparts,” Wright said.
Impact on HBCUs
Dwayne Wright is an assistant professor of higher education administration at George Washington University. He’s also the director of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.
He believes affirmative action and desegregation of higher education historically have led to the dilution of Black-led education, particularly as it relates to HBCUs.
“Prior to 1954 and the beginning of desegregation, the best and brightest of Black America not only went to our HBCUs, but they went there together,” Wright said. “I’m not here to say that desegregation was a bad thing. But what about the impact on Black schools? There was a brain drain that came out of the HBCUs for desegregation, including the desegregation effects that happened with affirmative action.”
With the rollback of affirmative action, Wright says, HBCUs will continue to see increased enrollment but wonders about the schools’ preparedness for an influx in admissions.
“We have seen an increase in enrollment at HBCUs ever since 2020 and the summer of George Floyd, because what Black students have said is, ‘We need to go someplace where it’s built for us,’” he said. “What I hope is that the HBCUs are ready to take on these students because they’re going to come onto these campuses with different expectations.”
Those expectations regarding housing, funding, and overall culture may vary from a student who Wright says was initially planning to attend a PWI versus an HBCU.
“Two years ago, you were getting ready to go to the University of Georgia in Athens, and now you’re saying, ‘OK, I might not get in there, I need to go to Morehouse,’” he said. “We know that many of our HBCUs … have been underfunded. When it comes to housing, resources, and culture, there is a difference.”