Latinos are one of the fastest growing groups in the US. By 2043, they are expected to double in size, yet they lag significantly behind in educational attainment. By 2018, 45 percent of jobs will require an associate’s degree or higher; however only 26 and 14 percent of U.S.-born Latinos and Latino immigrants have that level of education today, respectively. What’s more, according to the latest Census figures, nearly 65 percent of African Americans and 80 percent of Latino adults lack a post-secondary education. In contrast, 50 percent of the white non-Hispanic population has at least an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree.
These statistics help to elucidate why the decision handed down earlier this week by the United States Supreme Court is so significant to the Latino community. The Court reaffirmed the importance of diversity in college admissions, but made it harder for colleges and universities to consider diversity in their admission policies.
The Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin case was brought about by a white student who claimed that the university’s decision not to admit her was unfairly based on race, arguing that she was denied admission because she was not of minority status. UT at Austin uses a 10 percent rule in its admissions, accepting the top 10 percent of all high school students in Texas and using a combination of criteria for the remaining slots: academic merit, extracurricular activities, leadership and race.
The Supreme Court ruled that while diversity is a very important pursuit in itself and that racial and ethnic diversity could be used as one factor, colleges and universities must adhere to a very strict standard, proving that no other better scheme could be used to achieve diversity. It sent the case back to the Court of Appeals for reconsideration according to the strict standard.
Since the Court did not obliterate the use of race and ethnicity in admissions policies, the decision is welcome news in the civil rights community. The Court reaffirmed that a diverse learning environment benefits students. Unfortunately, it simultaneously made it more difficult for colleges and universities to consider race in admissions.
Despite the public’s dwindling support of affirmative action, there is strong evidence that such policies are still needed. The lagging educational attainment of Latinos and other students of color is proof that we still have a long way to go to ensure equal opportunity in education. Furthermore, public universities in states that have banned affirmative action in college admissions have tended to enroll fewer blacks and Hispanics. For example, in California, Hispanic and black enrollment at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of California, Los Angeles dropped sharply after voters approved a statewide ban on affirmative action. The enrollment gap today between white and Hispanic students at these universities has been increasing since the ban’s enactment in 1998. The reality is that students of color grow up facing a multitude of obstacles. Allowing universities to use race as part of a carefully crafted admissions criteria makes it more likely that talented students working to overcome these challenges will get a fair shot at attending college.
Opponents of affirmative action will continue to present legal challenges, particularly after the Court’s strict standards. But this week’s decision and the long-standing educational disparities that affect Latino students should push our leaders to recommit to fair and thoughtful ways of fostering diversity.
Vanessa Cárdenas is the Vice President of Progress 2050, a project of American Progress which seeks to build a progressive agenda that is more inclusive of the rich racial and ethnic makeup of our nation.