Robin Christenson: Affirmative Action

Aug 8, 2017

Recent information leaked from the Department of Justice suggests that changes are afoot that would undermine affirmative action in college admissions processes, potentially punishing colleges that undertake policies to promote a diverse student body.

Minority students are already much less likely to go to college than their peers, for many reasons. White students still outnumber minority students on top college campuses by more than eighty percent.

To address this, both federal programs and institutionally based initiatives have helped some young people make their way through the higher education process thanks to affirmative action, among other pathways.

Now this gateway to college is in danger, thanks to behind-the-scenes efforts at the Department of Justice. Race-conscious admissions policies aren’t just good for minority students who gain access to college. They are good for their peers, as well. The success of these students benefits all of us. Time and again, in education and business, we find that diversity and inclusion enhance innovation, understanding and, ultimately, the bottom line.

Capital Region Sponsor-A-Scholar is a college access and success program that assists public high school students in Albany, Schenectady and Troy to pursue their higher education goals. Our twenty years of experience, along with recent national data, highlights a longstanding gap in college admissions for minority students at our country’s selective institutions. Too many students don’t reach higher to pursue college because they don’t know where to start.

A considerable number of high schools in our area and around the country have startlingly overworked guidance staffs, with untenable counselor-to-student ratios. This is a particular challenge at under-resourced schools that often serve large minority or low-income populations.

As a result, too many students slip through the cracks, never considering college as a viable option. Threatening affirmative action programs only serves to make those students’ opportunities more scarce, by potentially penalizing the institutions that aim to assist motivated young people regardless of background. When they lose, we all do.

We know that it is not enough to encourage students to apply to college—the bigger challenges are to aid students in building skills and experiences throughout high school and college. It is critical that young people finishing high school are ready to meet the challenges of college once they arrive on campus.

They must possess academic ability, but must also know how to manage their time and crucially, they must have the confidence to serve as their own advocates. We know that students must show up and do the work, but they must also have access to the resources, people and opportunities that will help them thrive. Many minority students heading to college face a particular obstacle--they are not used to receiving support when they struggle, but are even more in need of it since they have more to lose if they fail.

In an ever more competitive global economy, we cannot afford to let the potential of our young people be sidelined based on zip code or skin color. Affirmative action policies help students pursue their interests, prepare for success in life, and provide a vibrant, inclusive educational experience for all college students.

We oppose any Department of Justice effort to undermine them. We will push for policies that encourage motivated students’ aspirations, no matter their background, so everyone can complete college and succeed in life. There is more work to be done to help students and this is no time to turn back the clock.

Robin Christenson is the executive director of Capital Region Sponsor-A-Scholar. 

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