You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

Higher education is still reeling from the Supreme Court decision in June that ended affirmative action.

While affirmative action has often been discussed in the context of exclusive universities—like Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—the Supreme Court decision that bans colleges from systematically considering race in admissions impacts the entire sector. From community colleges to public flagship universities to selective private institutions, all institutions of higher education have to navigate a new reality that threatens to exacerbate long-standing racial inequities that undermine the value of higher education.

Even before this summer’s ruling, higher education has often saddled students of color with insurmountable debt that they struggle to pay off their entire working lives. Three months after the end of affirmative action, higher education is in an even worse place when it comes to advancing racial equity. Colleges and universities have lost access to the tool they most relied on—albeit too often ineffectively—to increase racial diversity on their campuses. While exclusive universities grapple with new ways to recruit, admit and, ultimately, support students of color, one group of institutions has been particularly left out of the affirmative action conversation: community colleges.

Community colleges serve roughly 40 percent of all Black undergraduate students and more than 50 percent of all Latino/a undergraduate students. Despite this, there has not been enough discussion on how community college enrollment trends, admission practices and student outcomes will change as a result of the end of affirmative action. As open-access institutions, community colleges do not deny applicants. But, with the end of affirmative action and other threats to DEI initiatives on college campuses, many community colleges worry their own recruitment and enrollment practices may trigger unwanted oversight from policy makers who seek to reduce efforts to advance racial equity in higher education.

Even more worrisome, community college transfer pathways to four-year universities are directly impacted by the end of affirmative action. While researchers estimate that 80 percent of community college students intend to transfer to a four-year university, in 2015, only 25 percent of community college students actually transferred to a four-year university within five years of starting college. This alarmingly low transfer rate was further exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, the end of affirmative action threatens to make community college transfers even more challenging, as many successful community college transfer pathways were designed to specifically promote access to four-year universities for first-generation students, students of color and students from low-income backgrounds. Desirée Anderson, the dean of equity and inclusion at Prairie State College, expressed how the end of affirmative action will negatively impact her college’s ability to help students transfer by sharing in a conversation:

“We’ll see the biggest impact [from the end of affirmative action] in the transfer process. The lack of race-conscious admissions policies within four-year universities diminish opportunities for our students … a lot of our [previous] transfer opportunities were designed to create pathways for first-generation students, students of color and other students historically excluded from higher education … and those opportunities are going away. That transfer pipeline is now a hurdle.”

This grim reality will force community colleges to create new pathways to help their students transfer to four-year universities and achieve their academic goals in accordance with the new reality facing higher education admissions. While Anderson acknowledged that community colleges like Prairie State will need to create new transfer pipelines, she also shared that community colleges will need to find creative solutions to help their students transfer.

This could include helping students prepare stronger applications, providing students with deeper guidance on the four-year university landscape and building new partnerships with four-year institutions, as community colleges cannot rely on the pathways they’d previously established. This creates sizable obstacles for community colleges, but also an important opportunity to create new methods to help students succeed. And while this may sound daunting to community college leaders, particularly given the many battles community colleges have faced since the onset of the pandemic, this may jolt community colleges into action to address a critical problem facing the entire higher education ecosystem.

While community colleges navigate an unprecedented road ahead, they are well positioned to help more students than ever access higher education. The end of affirmative action will make it more challenging for students of color—particularly those from low-income backgrounds—to enroll in four-year universities. This means that community colleges will need to play an even more important role in expanding access to higher education. If community colleges seize this opportunity to re-evaluate their entire approach to transfer pathways, student success and completion, they could be better positioned than ever to expand their impact and meet their mission. Let’s hope colleges take on this challenge—and, importantly, state and federal governments provide them with the necessary resources to do so.

Next Story

Written By