Opinion
College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

What We Lose With the End of Affirmative Action

My path to higher education shows the importance of embracing students of all backgrounds
By David Velasquez — September 01, 2023 5 min read
Illustration of hands and puzzle pieces.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

In 2013, I received the best news of my life. I was accepted to the University of Southern California and would become the first person in my family to attend college.

I received this welcome despite having an SAT score that paled in comparison to most of the university’s accepted students. Of the approximately 47,000 high school seniors that applied, only 9,304 were accepted. To be fair, I graduated at the top of my high school class, but nobody from my high school had been accepted to USC. The black box of college admissions left me wondering whether my Hispanic identity had given me a “plus” in the school’s evaluation process, rendering my suboptimal SAT score more acceptable so that they chose me over other students with a similar (or even slightly better) profile.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected affirmative action in admissions decisions at universities nationwide. Critics of the decision handed down by the court’s conservative justices have largely focused on the reduction in racial diversity, in and of itself, as the negative consequence of race-neutral policies within higher education.

My story reveals another, equally concerning cost: We may also fail—more often than we already do—to capture and develop the best talent our youth can offer.

I started high school the same month my family came out of homelessness. As a freshman, I never seriously considered college. My parents dropped out of elementary school to support their families, and my older brothers did the same after graduating from high school. I also heard very little from college recruiters—a common experience for students at public high schools in less-affluent areas.

But with an early interest in the sciences, I took introductory biology, chemistry, and physics. Advanced science courses were not at all or rarely offered in my high school. Yet, I decided to apply to college because I dreamed of becoming a doctor and, according to Google, I first needed a bachelor’s degree.

So, my parents, who always encouraged me to pursue my dreams, scrounged enough cash to help me purchase a copy of an SAT book about two weeks before my exam. Little did I know that better-resourced students typically study months in advance with the aid of dedicated SAT prep courses and private tutors. But even if I had known this, we wouldn’t have been able to afford these supports. Unsurprisingly, Black and Hispanic students like me end up scoring lower on the SAT than white and Asian applicants, who tend to have more resources, based on data from 2022.

Not only was my SAT score below average, my college essays—which the conservative justices contend can be used to evaluate a student’s experiences with race and ethnicity—were also poorly written. I received little advice; we had one guidance counselor in a high school of about 800 students and no access to coaching that could help me articulate my story. As the first person in my family to apply to college, I did not grasp the importance of having polished essays. The same is true for many other disadvantaged students.

Nonetheless, I started college at USC in 2013. To enroll in the chemistry class required for medical school, I was initially placed in a tutorial course for students with inadequate preparation. Many of us were Black or Hispanic freshmen.

Race matters. It matters because of these moments, and because considering it in admissions functions as a proxy for the untold, often invisible challenges that come with being a minority in America.

By the end of my sophomore year, I was selected as one of two students to teach organic chemistry to the rest of the pre-medical students. Students from all backgrounds attended the sessions I led, using problems I created to help them master the content.

When I applied to medical school in 2016, I had made enough friends, gained a few mentors, and received access to a counselor to guide me through the application process. I worked on my personal statement to medical schools for months and studied for the MCAT using a friend’s study plan. This time, I could proudly articulate my story, and my test score was no longer in the bottom quartile. It was in the 95th percentile.

I was accepted to Harvard Medical School in 2017. Since then, I’ve taken care of many patients. One patient, a young Latino man, was hospitalized with a gunshot wound. He told me about the incident, his daughter, and his unremitting pains. “Este es bueno, es familia” (“This one is good, he is family”), he told his mother when I walked into his room. When I first entered USC, I dreamed of moments like this that underpin data demonstrating better outcomes when clinicians and patients are of a similar race and when they speak the same language.

Race matters. It matters because of these moments, and because considering it in admissions functions as a proxy for the untold, often invisible challenges that come with being a minority in America. USC gave me a shot, partly because of my academic performance and extracurricular experiences but also because they saw the potential of a Hispanic student without the best essays and the highest test score.

As universities adapt their admissions processes in response to the Supreme Court’s decision, they must preserve the talent that comes with recruiting diverse candidates—talent that, especially at the high school level, can be incredibly difficult to discover without considering race.

One way of identifying and preserving such talent may entail stronger partnerships between higher education and public high schools in less-affluent areas. Such partnerships, which exist in some states, could promote college interest and readiness.

High schools could also foster interest in higher education by engaging alumni who can mentor students. Improving access to—and performance in—Advanced Placement courses, which are less likely to be offered in lower-income areas, could also help.

As Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote in her dissent, educational institutions cannot allow the decision to “delay the day that every American has an equal opportunity to thrive, regardless of race.” Education leaders must heed these words. Otherwise, they risk losing the untapped potential of America’s hidden talent—potential like mine.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
Strategies for Incorporating SEL into Curriculum
Empower students to thrive. Learn how to integrate powerful social-emotional learning (SEL) strategies into the classroom.
Content provided by Be GLAD
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Leadership in Education: Building Collaborative Teams and Driving Innovation
Learn strategies to build strong teams, foster innovation, & drive student success.
Content provided by Follett Learning
School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Principals, Lead Stronger in the New School Year
Join this free virtual event for a deep dive on the skills and motivation you need to put your best foot forward in the new year.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

College & Workforce Readiness What the Research Says The State of Career and Technical Education, in Charts
New federal data shows more than 8 in 10 high school graduates completed at least one course in a career-education field in 2019.
2 min read
Young girl working on an electrical panel in a classroom setting.
iStock/Getty
College & Workforce Readiness Opinion Can Mastery-Based Learning Replace Seat Time?
Developing better assessments and getting buy-in from practitioners will be key to replacing seat time as a proxy for mastery.
6 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
College & Workforce Readiness From Our Research Center Are Real-World Problem-Solving Skills Essential for Students?
Ensuring students' career readiness is a top priority for districts.
2 min read
Photograph of culturally diverse students and Black female teacher discussing mathematics problem at a whiteboard
E+
College & Workforce Readiness What’s More Important to Students and Employers: Skills or Credentials?
At the Reagan Institute Summit on Education, leaders discussed the evolving value of college degrees versus career skills.
4 min read
Reagan Institute Summit on Education panelists discuss career-connected education at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute in Washington, D.C., on May 23, 2024.
Reagan Institute Summit on Education panelists discuss career-connected education at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute in Washington, D.C., on May 23, 2024.
Annie Goldman/Education Week