The Supreme Court decision to uphold the ban on affirmative action in Michigan and allow states to determine whether to permit or prohibit its use in college admissions will have far reaching effects on the higher education landscape that extend beyond basic enrollment. This ruling, in combination with recent performance-based funding measures in some states, has the potential to greatly restrict access and resources for students of color.
In a 6-to-2 decision, the majority determined that it was not the responsibility of the Supreme Court to decide this issue, but rather the people each state by the ballot.
Moderate to sharp declines in enrollment numbers at flagship institutions in states like California, Florida and Michigan illustrates the damaging effects the absence of affirmative action has on enrollment for students of color at these institutions. This shifting enrollment pattern is also negatively influenced by performance based funding, which incentivizes public institutions to value more academically prepared students with fewer risk factors for dropping out, rather than dedicating resources to develop students, especially low-income and students of color, with the potential to succeed. These two policies together, have the potential to create additional barriers for students of color, limiting their numbers in flagship public institutions, and effectively forcing them to more regional colleges and universities.
African American, Latino and Native American students are more likely to be from low-income families and under-resourced, under-performing high schools, limiting their ability to enter college fully prepared. These students may have the same academic potential, but have lacked the opportunity to demonstrate their ability. Performance funding evaluates success based on measures that often do not account for outside factors such as these and typically do not reward institutions that help students overcome these challenges. As top-tier public universities compete for the highest performing high school students to ensure high marks based on performance-based funding practices, students of color that may require more support services may not be admitted.
In addition to resources allocated by performance based funding measures, states disperse more funding per student to flagship institutions than other regional and local public institutions. As students of color are directed out of flagship institutions, some states with both of these regulations in place will devote significantly less spending to the education of low-income, students of color compared to their White peers. There is potential for this trend to accelerate as the federal government proposes similar performance-based funding measures that may also negatively affect access.
In the U.S., more than 80 percent of new White students attend selective four-year schools, compared with 13 percent for Hispanics and 9 percent for African Americans. In four states—Arizona, Oklahoma, Florida and Michigan—governments have both eliminated the use of affirmative action in college admissions, and instituted performance-based funding methods in their public postsecondary systems. For minority serving institutions in these states, their role in maintaining access to higher education for traditionally marginalized groups is as important as it has ever been. We hope that as higher education leadership in these states and others propose policy changes based on the Supreme Court’s ruling on Tuesday, the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions can be a resource to those institutions and postsecondary systems hoping to preserve the higher education opportunities for all students.