There was a national sigh of relief on campuses in June when an altered U.S. Supreme Court left standing the historic 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger decision supporting affirmation action in admissions. There had been widespread fear among civil rights advocates that a more conservative Supreme Court would seriously undermine or even reverse the 5-4 Grutter decision with its author, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, no longer on the Court. The voluntary school integration decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education was, indeed, a serious reversal for desegregation in K-12 schools but while divided on the constitutionality of the school plans at issue in the cases, all nine justices agreed that the decision had no impact on the Grutter precedent. The rights of colleges to use race in admissions decisions for student body diversity had survived scrutiny by the most conservative Supreme Court in more than 70 years. Since the Supreme Court rarely takes such cases, the Grutter precedent might last for a while. While a bullet was dodged, optimism should be restrained. The dike protecting affirmative action has held but the river that brings diverse groups of students to colleges may be drying up as a result of the latest decision.
Colleges and universities, especially selective institutions, tend to draw their successful minority applicants from interracial schools and their admissions offices know well that many of the segregated minority high schools fail to prepare their students well enough to succeed in college. Research by the Civil Rights Project has shown that too many segregated urban high schools are "dropout factories" where the main product is dropouts and successful preparation for college is rare. Conservative economist Eric Hanushek found that the damage was worst for the relatively high achieving black students, the very students likely to comprise the college eligible pool. So making segregation worse cuts the number of well prepared students. In addition to academic preparation, students from segregated backgrounds are also often not ready to function socially on a largely white, affluent campus. It also means of course, that the most segregated group of students in American schools, whites, also have less preparation to deal successfully with diversity. So colleges may have won, but also lost.
Even before the new decision, segregation had been on the rise for almost two decades in American public schools, partially as a result of three decisions by the Supreme Court limiting desegregation in the 1990s ( Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell, Freeman v. Pitts and Missouri v. Jenkins). Because this new decision struck down the most common methods of creating integrated schools in districts without court orders to desegregate, it will likely precipitate further increases in segregation. Since 1980 the tools most commonly used to create integrated schools combine parental choice of schools with magnet programs and racial diversity guidelines. Now the limitations that prevented transfers and magnet choices that increased segregation are gone and districts have to decide whether to do something more complex and multidimensional or abandon their integration efforts. It remains to be seen what will happen in various districts, of course, but the experience of other districts that have ended the consideration of race as a criteria in their student assignment policies suggests that race-neutral methods will lead to resegregation and growing inequality.
Research thus suggests that there are two significant implications for higher education to consider. First, rising segregation is likely to bring a rise in educational inequality and less prepared black and Latino students. Second, all incoming students are likely to have fewer interracial experiences prior to attending college meaning they will be less prepared for effective functioning in an interracial setting.
The Seattle and Louisville cases produced an outpouring of summaries of a half century of research by a number of groups of scholars. A subsequent review of the briefs by the non-partisan National Academy of Education confirms the central premise of Brown v. Board of Education that racially isolated minority schools offer students an inferior education, which is likely to harm their future life opportunities, such as graduation from high school and success in college. Racially isolated minority schools are often unequal to schools with higher percentages of white students in terms of tangible resources, such as qualified, experienced teachers and college preparatory curriculum, and intangible resources including low teacher turnover and more middle-class peers -- all of which are associated with positive higher educational outcomes.
Although colleges and universities differ in their criteria and process for admissions, common elements to their admissions decisions for students include 1) whether a student has or will graduate from high school, 2) standardized test scores, and 3) number of advanced and Advanced Placement courses. Research consistently finds that minority students graduate at significantly lower rates in racially isolated minority schools; in fact, minority isolation is a significant predictor of low graduation rates, even when holding constant the effects of other school performance indicators. Academic achievement scores of students are also lower in segregated minority schools, and this effect can cumulate over time for students who spend multiple years attending segregated schools. Finally, many predominantly minority schools do not offer as extensive advanced curricular opportunities and levels of academic competition as do majority white or white and Asian schools.
In addition to offering different opportunities for academic preparation, research has also found that integrated schools offer minority students important connections to competitive higher education and information about these options. There are strong ties between successful high schools and selective colleges. Minority students who graduate from integrated schools are more likely to have access to the social and professional networks normally available to middle class white students. For example, a study of Latino students who excelled at elite higher educational institutions found that most students had attended desegregated schools -- and gained academic confidence as well as critical knowledge about what they need to do to accomplish their aspirations (e.g., which courses to take from other, college-going students).
White students also lose if schools resegregate. Desegregation advocates assert that public school desegregation is powerful and essential because desegregated schools better prepare future citizens for a multiracial society. A critical component of this preparation is gaining the skills to work with people of diverse backgrounds. Segregated schools in segregated neighborhoods leave white as well and nonwhite students ill-prepared for what they will encounter in colleges and university classes or in their dorms.
Over 50 years ago, Harvard psychologist Gordon Allport suggested that one of the essential conditions to reducing prejudice was that people needed to be in contact with one another, particularly under appropriate conditions. Research in racially integrated schools confirms that, by allowing for students of different races and ethnicities to be in contact with one another, students can develop improved cross-racial understanding and experience a reduction of racial prejudice and bias. Importantly, research suggests that other interventions such as studying about other groups are not as effective or as long-lasting as actually being in contact with students of other racial/ethnic backgrounds.
Research on graduates of racially integrated elementary and secondary schools has also found that students who graduated from these settings felt their integrated schooling experiences had better prepared them for college, including being more interested in attending integrated higher education institutions. The Civil Rights Project has surveyed high school juniors in a number of major school systems around the country and students in more diverse schools report feeling more comfortable living and working with others of different backgrounds than did their peers in segregated high schools.
As schools become more segregated, it will become more incumbent on colleges and universities to intensify their outreach and retention programs to improve access for all students, and to consider the extra burdens borne by the victims of segregation who have done nothing to deserve unequal opportunities. In particular, it will be critically important for colleges and universities to continue to use race in their outreach and retention programs. As colleges and universities that have sought to defend affirmative action policies have long understood and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy recently wrote, “The enduring hope is that race should not matter, the reality is that too often it does.” Further, the need to help students understand how to productively live with others from diverse backgrounds will fall to higher education. As other institutions retreat from mirroring the racial diversity of our country, this may increasingly become a responsibility universities must shoulder.
Our incoming students already have more limited interracial experiences than the last generation of students, a trend that is likely to only get worse. We hope that many school districts will continue to value integration and seek more comprehensive policies under the new guidelines set forth in Justice Kennedy's controlling opinion, but it is very likely that segregation will worsen. We believe that university faculty and researchers who may have expertise to assist local school districts find legal and workable solutions to maintain diversity should offer support at this critical time. Universities can also take a public leadership and education role in continuing to argue for the importance of integrated educational settings. These actions could help limit some of the ill effects of the resegregation of local schools and help keep alive the legacy of Brown in a period of judicial retreat.