Affirmative action: For years, some people have balked at it, while others have been actively trying to dismantle it. But we need to embrace it, full stop. If anything, the largest-ever college admissions scandal proves that colleges actually need more affirmative action, now, more than ever. Believe it or not, Black and Latino students are less represented at top colleges and universities than they were almost 40 years ago.
According to Ed Trust’s research on race-conscious admissions, the nation’s most elite research universities have an undergraduate student population that is less than 7 percent Black and 11 percent Latino. In other words, White privilege is still fully intact, while students of color are striving to catch up. There are so many myths about affirmative action, like it’s higher education’s bogeyman somehow responsible for all of society’s ills.
But the ugly truth is now exposed: Wealthy White kids have always had the upper hand. This is exactly why students of color and those from low-income families need a leg up. Diverse campuses, both racially and socioeconomically, are what colleges should be striving to be as true engines of social mobility and to better reflect America’s changing population.
I used to joke I got in to a small elite college due to affirmative action, which probably was the case at such a selective school with a hefty price tag. But once I walked on that majestic campus, I was determined to prove that I belonged despite having checked the box for Latino. I garnered a mix of scholarships, grants and financial aid. I worked a job both on and off-campus to help pay for books and other expenses. I managed to graduate a semester early to save my folks some money. I did everything I could to make each credit count and show that my acceptance wasn’t a fluke.
While I relished my time there, I was a “Have Not” in a sea of “Have Mores.” I was car-less on a campus where everyone drove Land Rovers or Mercedes. Some of my classmates included Johnnie Cochran’s daughter, Sophia Loren’s son, Bonnie Raitt’s niece, and a prince of Yemen. (The school was a magnet for rich foreign students because they had to pay full-priced tuition.) To say it was a culture shock is an understatement. But I ultimately prevailed and made my family proud.
Getting into college is supposed to be the last bastion of meritocracy, or so we’ve been told. All the while, rich White parents have been bribing and cheating their kids’ way into college for decades. I can’t help but think of all the students of color and low-income students like myself who worked so hard but have been passed over, or shut out altogether from the college education they wanted and deserved.
And I’m not just looking backward, but forward: My daughter will be entering high school in the fall. That means that college applications are a mere three years away. Will this rigged system be fixed by then? Will it matter that she keeps straight A’s and plays the cello if some rich White kid can Photoshop himself playing water polo? Will she, like me, be looked at as the token minority once she gets on campus? Who knows? But colleges and universities have been officially put on notice, and America is watching. This mom is.