Advocates Fear Setbacks for Racial Equality in Student Loan and Affirmative Action Rulings

by Chloe Baker
racial equality

Makia Green, a Black student raised by a single mother, strongly believes that she benefited from a program that prioritized students of color from economically disadvantaged backgrounds when she was admitted to the University of Rochester over a decade ago.

Having accumulated just over $20,000 in undergraduate student loan debt, Green had been relying on President Joe Biden’s promised debt relief to alleviate the majority of her financial burden.

However, the U.S. Supreme Court recently struck down the student loan cancellation plan, effectively dismantling the opportunity for debt relief. In addition to this, the Court also invalidated affirmative action in college admissions, both of which disproportionately assist Black students. For Green and many others of color, these policy rollbacks signify a broader backlash against racial progress in higher education.

“I believe that working people, including myself, have endured enough hardships, from a pandemic to social unrest, a recession, and the rising cost of living,” expressed Green, who is also a community organizer. “I deserved some relief.”

These rulings have potential political ramifications among young voters of color who supported Biden’s campaign promise of canceling student debt.

“Despite today’s disheartening ruling, we demand that the Biden Administration fulfills its commitment to student loan debt relief,” stated NAACP President Derrick Johnson. “Education has always been viewed as a pathway to generational wealth, economic liberation, and achieving the American dream. Let’s be clear—student debt is impeding that dream.”

President Biden’s plan included forgiving up to $10,000 in federal student debt and doubling the relief to $20,000 for borrowers who received Pell Grants. The White House estimated that this would eliminate around half of the average debt held by Black and Hispanic borrowers.

Six Republican-led states challenged the legality of the president’s authority to forgive the debt, leading the Supreme Court to rule that the administration required Congress’ endorsement before implementing such a costly program.

Regarding the affirmative action cases, the Court deliberated on the use of race-conscious admissions policies that many selective colleges have employed for decades to promote diversity on their campuses. The lawsuits were filed by a conservative activist who argued that the Constitution prohibits the consideration of race in college admissions.

According to the Rev. Al Sharpton, these cases collectively impact Black Americans negatively. Sharpton stated, “The truth is, race plays a role in admissions from pre-K to post-doctorate, and institutions have now lost their most effective tool for achieving fairness.”

Dominique Baker, an education policy professor at Southern Methodist University, noted that both cases focus on policies designed to address historical racial disparities in accessing higher education. Black borrowers often assume a disproportionately larger amount of debt to finance their college education.

Baker explained that backlash against racial progress frequently arises during periods of social change and advancement. In her 2019 study, she found that states were more likely to implement bans on affirmative action when white enrollment at public flagship universities declined.

“These policy measures explicitly aim to reduce the influence of white supremacy,” Baker stated. She views the two court challenges as interconnected responses to racial justice initiatives.

Green, who grew up in a low-income household in Harlem, New York, graduated from Rochester with approximately $40,000 in federal loan debt. A portion of her debt was forgiven through a public service forgiveness program after completing two terms with AmeriCorps. She further reduced her debt through monthly payments until the government paused repayments due to the pandemic. Repayments will recommence in September.

Green perceives both court cases as part of a conservative assault on diversity, equity, and inclusion programs. Critics argue that opposition to these programs stems from concerns about fairness and white grievances regarding the advancement of nonwhite individuals.

“This is a manifestation of white supremacy,” Green asserted. “Conservative groups with white supremacist leanings have long used education as a means to control and oppress Black people by restricting their access to education.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, many colleges implemented affirmative action plans to address the historical exclusion of individuals from disadvantaged and underrepresented communities, including predominantly white institutions. These policies also aimed to increase the inclusion of women.

Since the late 1970s, the Supreme Court had previously upheld affirmative action in college admissions on the grounds that institutions had a compelling interest in remedying past discrimination that marginalized nonwhite students. Justices also recognized the benefits of diverse student bodies in fostering cross-racial understanding.

The recent ruling has raised concerns among students and advocates about the impact on campus diversity. Tarina Ahuja, a senior at Harvard College, emphasized the importance of a diverse student body in her undergraduate experience. She recalled discussions in classes where students shared their lived experiences regarding topics such as police violence, colonialism, and labor movements. These conversations would have lacked depth and perspective without a diverse range of student viewpoints.

In anticipation of a ruling against race-conscious admissions, some colleges have contemplated expanding essay requirements to gain a more comprehensive understanding of applicants’ backgrounds—an approach seemingly endorsed by the Supreme Court’s ruling. Other institutions have planned to intensify recruiting efforts in racially diverse areas. However, in states where affirmative action has already been banned, similar attempts at selective colleges have largely failed to maintain diversity gains.

Jonathan Loc, a graduate student at Harvard and an advocate for affirmative action, emphasized that students of color cannot discuss their lives without acknowledging the role of race, whether in recounting hardships or expressing pride in their cultural heritage.

“I grew up as the son of refugees in a low-income community and a single-parent family, burdened by the model minority myth,” Loc explained. “However, this narrative has also led me to become an Asian American who is focused on racial justice and ensuring that everyone’s unique story related to their racial or personal background is heard.”

It will be crucial for colleges to find alternative ways to demonstrate their recognition of students beyond mere statistics, according to Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

“We need educational institutions to convey the message that although they are no longer able to consider race, they still see and value each student,” Hewitt emphasized. His organization defended affirmative action before the Supreme Court in October.

This article was originally written by Annie Ma and Aaron Morrison, members of AP’s Race and Ethnicity team.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about racial equality

Q: What were the Supreme Court rulings regarding student loans and affirmative action?

A: The Supreme Court rulings addressed two significant issues. First, the Court struck down the student loan cancellation plan proposed by President Joe Biden, which would have provided debt relief for borrowers. Second, the Court invalidated affirmative action in college admissions, which has been a policy used to promote diversity on campuses for decades. Both rulings have raised concerns about the potential setbacks for racial equality in higher education.

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Anonymous June 30, 2023 - 11:33 pm

wow, dis is a big deal! suuuper upset dat student loan relief got cancelled, and no more affirmative action? come on! dis feels like a step backward for racial equality in skools. we need more support, not less! #Disappointed

Emma86 July 1, 2023 - 10:37 am

Ugh, Supreme Court always messin’ things up! Student loans are killin’ us, and now dey take away debt relief? Ain’t fair! And gettin’ rid of affirmative action? It’s gonna hurt diversity in skools. We need progress, not dese setbacks! #Frustrated

JohnDoe21 July 1, 2023 - 12:59 pm

It’s a shame dat the Supreme Court ruled against student loan relief and affirmative action. Dis hurts so many people, especially students of color. We need policies dat promote fairness and equal opportunities. Dis is a major setback for racial justice in education. #Disheartened


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