Opinion: HBCUs can fill gap likely to result from Supreme Court decisions

Graduates Raven Rouseau (hand up) and Katharine Ross (right) sing along with “A Choice to Change the World” during Spelman College’s commencement at the Georgia International Convention Center on Sunday, May 21, 2023.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Graduates Raven Rouseau (hand up) and Katharine Ross (right) sing along with “A Choice to Change the World” during Spelman College’s commencement at the Georgia International Convention Center on Sunday, May 21, 2023. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

In a guest column, Dr. Helene D. Gayle, president of Spelman College, discusses the ramifications of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ban on affirmative action and its ruling that blocked the Biden administration’s sweeping student loan forgiveness plan.

Prior to joining Spelman a year ago, Gayle spent nearly a decade as president and CEO of Atlanta-based CARE. An epidemiologist and physician, Gayle also worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, primarily on HIV/AIDS, and at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with a focus on global public health.

By Dr. Helene D. Gayle

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions to strike down affirmative action, which permitted colleges to consider race as a factor in their admissions policies, and President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness program were a gut-wrenching blow to the diversity of our democracy and the promise of equal opportunity for all Americans. For Black people, the impact was not just a blow, it has dire consequences for economic and social mobility.

Dr. Helene Gayle is the president of Spelman College. Courtesy photo.

Credit: Contributed

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Credit: Contributed

Since emancipation from enslavement, Black people have relied on education, especially a higher education degree, as the pathway to opportunity and economic mobility. Yet these decisions by the high court stand to open the door to mechanisms that will kill the dreams of many Black students. It will stall the still slim gains in upward mobility of Black people who for generations have been constrained by lower incomes and saddled by higher debt.

According to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, young adult women and young Black adults were more likely to have student loan debt than young adult men and young white adults. Gaps in average debt between these groups also grew as they aged. Additionally, an increasing share of college-going adults must take out student loans. While necessary to cover their education and associated costs, as noted, this debt is not distributed equally and the ability to repay debt is less for the very groups who are the most debt burdened. Because of racial and gender pay gaps, women and Black adults are more likely to pay down their debt slower than their better compensated white male counterparts.

These factors, combined with the growing cost of higher education, can push a college degree, career and economic success out of reach for generations of Black students, especially Black women who live at the intersection of gender and racial discrimination.

It begs the questions: How does America prosper when a substantial segment of our society is set up to be disenfranchised and further burdened by crushing debt? Since our nation’s diversity is one of our greatest strengths, how do we as a country prosper and remain globally competitive when reducing access to higher education for all?

The Brookings Institution cites the SCOTUS ruling as a major setback to the centuries-long diversity efforts of colleges and universities in selecting their applicant pool. Black students were not admitted at Harvard — the nation’s oldest higher education institution founded in 1636 — for more than 200 years. Black female undergraduate students were not accepted until Harvard and Radcliffe merged in 1977. There are more examples that provide perspective on the impact of the court’s ruling on Black and brown communities, and the nation as a whole.

The 103 historically Black colleges and universities, which were created to provide access to higher education when predominantly white institutions would not open their doors to Black students, will also feel the impact. HBCUs continue to punch above their weight — representing 3% of the nation’s higher education institutions and graduating nearly 20% of all Black students. The SCOTUS rulings will likely cause a significant upsurge in the already ascending application and enrollment rates at these institutions.

Black students’ perceptions of the likelihood of admission and their desire to be in settings that provide a supportive environment and classmates that share common histories are bound to lead to an increase in applications at the nation’s HBCUs.

With the anticipated shift in the interest of HBCUs, now is the time to push forward for more funding support from foundations, the federal government and individual donors. It’s imperative, because our ability to fill the gap is critical to our nation’s need to continue building a diverse pipeline of talented students and workforce that best positions our nation for the future.

With additional support, we can recruit and retain accomplished faculty and staff, support faculty research and manage teaching loads, provide scholarships to reduce student debt, and support infrastructure and facilities upgrades. HBCU endowments continue to trail those of other institutions. The endowments of the top 10 predominantly white campuses combined are roughly 100 times larger than the endowments of the top 10 HBCUs. Although we recently concluded our largest-ever fundraising campaign for Spelman College, it’s not enough to meet the total financial needs of the more than 70% of Spelman students who receive financial aid, the needs of faculty, and our infrastructure.

Across the country, higher education institutions will be working to update processes, applications, and acceptance criteria to comply with the ruling. Selective colleges, which tended to be racially and economically homogenous before affirmative action, must find new and innovative ways of identifying Black talent. And the ways in which Black students apply to college, create their college lists, and structure their applications are bound to change.

In the absence of race, socioeconomic status and family wealth may be used as a stand-in to identify underrepresented groups. This approach, however, may particularly leave out middle-class Black families who have also experienced generational barriers to higher education and Black students who have contributed to diverse perspectives in the classroom.

As someone who likely benefited from affirmative admissions policies, I value the opportunities that were afforded me to attend three Ivy League and elite higher education institutions with manageable debt and reasonable payment options. Therefore, I felt very personally the double whammy decisions by the SCOTUS striking down both affirmative action and loan forgiveness.

For the health and wealth of our communities and our nation, we must remain undaunted and determined to ensure that students of all races have access to the full range of options and higher educational opportunities that fit their needs.

While these decisions are deeply disappointing, the necessity to continue the journey requires nothing less than our full commitment.