The Supreme Court’s recent decision to end affirmative action in college admissions has ignited intense debates about the role of race in the pursuit of diversity in higher education.
What should not be up for debate, however, is the ongoing need for our communities and our public institutions to push open the doors to educational opportunities that too often continue to be closed to students of color.
I am one of the lucky few who — even as an English language learner who came to this valley at age 9 — was able to push through. I am the first in my family to have graduated from high school and college — earning degrees from both Colorado Mountain College and Colorado State University in Fort Collins.
On the Western Slope, Colorado Mountain College accepts students regardless of GPA or test scores, with some more popular programs having more selective admissions procedures. About 25% of CMC’s student body is Latino. Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction (where I am a trustee) has a more selective admissions process, but still accepts the majority of applicants, even if some start in a two-year or certificate program at CMU Tech. Latino students represent about 22% of CMU’s student population.
But the path to any college is too often one from which it’s easy to stray, and Latinos and other minority groups remain vastly underrepresented — be they students, faculty or administrators — at selective colleges and universities, which often serve as the most direct pipelines to power and leadership.
Diverse college campuses (or campuses that are reflective of our society overall) help expose students to a range of perspectives and backgrounds. This exposure can enhance all students’ critical thinking, cultural awareness, and global competence — skills that are increasingly essential.
In the court’s June ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts said giving Latino and Black applicants an edge over other applicants in striving for diversity violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment (which, he failed to note, was enacted specifically because Black Americans had endured unequal treatment). It’s as if he — and the other justices writing for the majority — believe that more than 200 years of slavery, racism and building of systems that are off-limits to or out of reach of Latino and Black families have somehow suddenly disappeared.
We know that is not the case. According to Pew Research Center, although Latino enrollment in colleges and universities has been increasing, roughly 25% of Latinos over the age of 25 hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to nearly 45% of white Americans. That imbalance not only limits opportunities for individual Latinos but it also hampers our ability to realize the full potential of this country’s diverse population.
We not only need to focus on getting students of color accepted to colleges but making sure they are college- or workforce-ready before they graduate high school to ensure their future success.
Post-secondary education serves as a gateway to economic prosperity. People who attain higher levels of education are more likely to access better job opportunities and contribute positively to the economy.
According to Census data, Colorado ranks second in the United States for the total population in terms of educational attainment, but 23rd in the nation among Latinos, which illustrates the continued gap in attainment by race and ethnicity.
As the state demographer’s office has said, addressing this racial gap is “critical for Colorado’s continued productivity.” Why? Because Latinos make up an increasingly large share of the population — 23% based on the most recent Census data, and 32% of Coloradans under the age of 18.
To address the ongoing disparities in higher education, a multifaceted approach is needed. Policymakers should continue working to measure and improve educational outcomes for K-12 students in underserved communities, providing students with a strong foundation that prepares them for college. Additionally, colleges and universities can implement targeted recruitment and support programs for Latino students, creating an inclusive environment that fosters and promotes their success.
With its ruling, the Supreme Court upended decades of its own precedents, taking higher education in the U.S. backward along with them.
Affirmative action in institutions of higher learning had been reaffirmed twice before by the Supreme Court, with research clearly demonstrating that no other method racially diversifies a student body as effectively as using race in consideration for admissions.
“With let-them-eat-cake obliviousness, today, the majority pulls the ripcord and announces ‘colorblindness for all’ by legal fiat,” Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote in dissent. “But deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life. And having so detached itself from this country’s actual past and present experiences, the Court has now been lured into interfering with the crucial work that UNC and other institutions of higher learning are doing to solve America’s real-world problems.”
I share her disappointment. No one benefits from the further entrenchment of racial inequality in education — and it is crucial that we all continue to advocate for additional measures to ensure equitable access to higher education for Latinos and students of color.
Alex Sánchez is the founder and CEO of Voces Unidas de las Montañas and Voces Unidas Action Fund, nonprofit organizations working in Summit, Lake, Eagle, Pitkin, and Garfield counties. His column appears monthly.