HENDERSON (October 3, 2023) – What will happen after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the use of race in college admissions in June? Opinions varied widely in a recent debate – yet panelists reached surprising consensus on the need to improve K-12 public schools.
The debate at Vance-Granville Community College was the first in a four-week series of Home Town Debates on education topics sponsored by Spectrum News and the NC Institute of Political Leadership. Higher Ed Works and BEST NC serve as advisors for the series.
“I think we’re in a dark kind of day, or moment, when it comes to the protections that folks in protected classes … can expect from our courts and our legislative bodies,” said Rep. Vernetta Alston, D-Durham, a lawyer with a background in social-justice issues.
Black and Latino students are “steeply underrepresented” in 80% of research universities, Alston said. And in states that banned race-based admissions, enrollment of Black and Latino students declined 40%.
“We don’t have to speculate about what the outcomes are going to be from this kind of ruling,” she said.
Kenny Xu (pronounced shoo), a Davidson College graduate and board member of Students for Fair Admissions, which successfully sued Harvard and UNC Chapel Hill over admissions policies that included race as a factor, said admissions should be based on merit alone.
Xu noted that in the Grutter v Bollinger case involving University of Michigan admissions, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said in 2003 that affirmative action should not last more than another 25 years.
“Affirmative action as we know it has not worked in higher education. It has not helped Black Americans succeed,” Xu said. Only 5% of lawyers are Black, he said, and there are fewer Black male doctors now than in 1970.
Asked whether colorblind admissions are possible, Dr. Irving Joyner, a law professor at NC Central University and renowned civil-rights attorney, said there’s no such thing as colorblindness.
Asians had the highest admission rates at UNC Chapel Hill, while African-Americans had the lowest, Joyner said.
He repeatedly referenced the opinion of federal District Court Judge Loretta Biggs, noting that the Supreme Court excluded Biggs’ ruling from its findings.
“She found that there was no use of race in making decisions about who entered the university,” Joyner said.
Xu countered that the UNC and Harvard admissions processes amounted to racism against Asians.
“If you look at the admitted statistics … the average admitted SAT of an Asian student is 1280, and the average admitted SAT of a Black student is 1080. It amounts to a 200-point admitted student penalty,” Xu said.
“That is racism against Asians. I want to stop racism. I want to stop all prejudice. I want admissions to be merit-based.”
Xu and George Leef of the Martin Center for Academic Renewal both said students denied admission at the University of California at Berkeley after California banned race-based admissions still were admitted to other UC System schools.
Xu and Leef also criticized legacy admissions for the offspring of alumni and big donors.
Universities admit such students “in hopes that the family will make more donations,” said Leef. “You’re undermining the academic nature of the institution, trying to maximize your revenue. At the same time, you’re allowing in students who really aren’t competitive.”
Joyner noted that Biggs found 54% of Asian-Americans who applied to UNC-CH were admitted. The admission percentage fell to 51% of whites, 41% of Hispanics and 31% of African-Americans in a state where African-Americans represent 21% of the population and Asians represent 5%, he said.
“In North Carolina, every African-American student that is admitted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is well qualified and meets all of the standards,” he said. The University’s former general counsel1 and its student body president2 have made similar assertions.
“UNC uses 40 different factors in determining admissions at that university – two of (which) would be the SAT and their grade-point average. There are 38 others that no one here seems to think are important, but I think are very important that they are considered.”
With much of the discussion focused on test scores and grade-point averages, Joyner also noted that revered African-American civil-rights lawyer Julius Chambers had the lowest GPA and LSAT scores in his class at the UNC School of Law, yet he graduated as valedictorian and editor of the law review.
“So numbers don’t mean a damn thing,” he said.
Joyner also noted that in his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts found admissions officers could consider the struggles students have faced, including experiences due to race and discrimination.
Both before and after the Supreme Court decision, several North Carolina universities announced policies to provide free tuition for students from families under a certain income level. UNC Chapel Hill said it would cover tuition and required fees for any student whose family makes less than $80,000 a year.3
Leef said that’s bad policy. “States ought to treat all their citizens the same,” he said. “We shouldn’t have different prices for UNC any more than we have different prices for renewing your driver’s license.”
Alston said the policy might help many students.
“Will it make up for the devastating impact of this affirmative action decision, what that’s gonna do to the access that students will have? I don’t think it’s gonna come close,” she said.
Improve K-12 schools
The panelists found surprising consensus, though, on one way to elevate performance of minority students and reduce the achievement gap: Improve K-12 public schools.
“To genuinely serve all Americans – especially North Carolinians – we need to fix our public education system. K-12,” said Xu.
“By the time you are in 12th grade, your ability in terms of doing the algebra, in terms of reading, in terms of literacy, is unfortunately pretty set. So before the age of 7 – if we’re going to be investing resources, if we’re going to be investing time, if we’re going to be investing equity resources, we need to do it in early childhood.”
“I certainly would not disagree that for instance, the state of North Carolina has shortchanged students in high school, in elementary schools and grade schools – particularly all over eastern North Carolina. And that has harmed them. Nevertheless, they have been able to achieve,” he said.
Leef, too, said universities should try to improve the K-12 pipeline.
“Because that pipeline is broken in many, many cities,” he said, and affirmative action has been a distraction.
“That does almost nothing to improve the underlying pathology of poor education – young people with a bad educational start are almost never going to wind up a success in life. That is the big problem, and I don’t know what universities can do for that, but I do think they should put some time thinking about it,” Leef said.
What next? Outreach
A week after the Supreme Court decision, UNC Chapel Hill announced it has hired five additional “outreach officers” to work in 27 counties stretching from Craven to Gaston to convince students in low-income communities they can afford Carolina.4
Xu said that North Carolina should pay attention to Mississippi, which began requiring a third-grade literacy test in 2013 and went from 48th in math and reading to 22nd in 10 years.
“Pressure makes diamonds. I’m fully on board with that,” he said.
Joyner said NC Central and N.C. A&T remain attractive options for minority students.
“While UNC may be a gold mine in some eyes, it is not the only mine that is in town,” he said.
But as for UNC Chapel Hill, “What do I see ahead? Hard work. A lot of hard work,” he said.