Press Release

Ed Trust Argues Only Race-Conscious Policies Can Fix Racism in Higher Education

WASHINGTON – As we celebrate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., it’s a time to reflect on how far we’ve come as a nation — and how much further we have to go. When it comes to higher education, unfortunately, higher education leaders and policymakers have long used unjust policies to exclude students of color from pursuing and earning college degrees. A new report and video from The Education Trust argue that racist policies must be overturned and that income-based policies alone are insufficient to achieve racial equity in U.S. higher education. Federal, state, and institutional leaders must enact race-conscious policies for college admissions and degree attainment, higher education funding, student debt relief, and campus climate.

Relying on historical analysis and analysis of trends in college opportunity and outcomes for Black students, Hard Truths: Why Only Race-Conscious Policies Can Fix Racism in Higher Education answers a call from education equity advocates for tools to push policymakers to focus explicitly on race in higher education.

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Hard Truths presents three complementary arguments:

  1. Historically, higher education has used racist policies, such as providing unequal funding, to exclude students. Therefore, race-conscious policies are necessary to achieve racial justice.
  2. Racial inequalities remain, and, in some cases, have worsened because public leaders eliminated race-conscious policies, curtailing their impact.
  3. Policies that rely on proxies for race, such as income, have not improved opportunities or outcomes for students of color and are insufficient for making racial progress.

“Compared to White students of the same family income, Black students enroll in less selective colleges, complete bachelor’s degrees at much lower rates, and default on their loans at much higher rates,” said Andrew H. Nichols, Ph.D., senior director of higher education research and data analytics at The Education Trust. “Policies that neglect race will not erase racial disparities in opportunity and outcomes.”

Hard Truths traces the history of systematic racial exclusion in higher education beginning with slavery, to a fleeting period of racial progress made possible by race-conscious policies including an Executive Order promoting affirmative action, to the present period of retreat from the very policies that contributed to racial progress. When discussing solutions, the report provides a wealth of evidence to debunk the theory that race-neutral policies alone are the right way forward.

Our report finds that a third of the highest-income Black student loan borrowers default on their loans, a rate seven times that of the highest-income White student loan borrowers.

“Yes, income matters. Wealth matters. But race still matters, too, and racial equity, in higher education or in any other domain, won’t be achieved by ignoring racial discrimination and avoiding race-conscious policies,” said Tiffany Jones, Ph.D., Ed Trust’s senior director of higher education policy. “Education and civil rights advocates largely understand this. The challenge is getting policymakers to acknowledge that race-conscious policies are required if the goal is to create equal opportunity.”

The good news is that some state leaders are enacting race-conscious policies to advance racial equity in higher education.

“An essential part of our student-centered vision for higher education in New Jersey is rewarding colleges and universities for enrolling and graduating underrepresented students of color,” said Zakiya Smith Ellis, New Jersey’s secretary of higher education. “As part of this strategy, last year Gov. Murphy delivered the first funding increase in nearly two decades for public higher education, allocated by means of a new equity-based funding rationale, and we’re just getting started.”

“In Colorado, we are committed to eliminating racial disparities in higher education,” said Dr. Angie Paccione, executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education. “We want 66% of all Black, Latino, and Native American students to earn a college degree or certificate in the next five years, and to get there, we need a coordinated effort that brings together industry, K-12 and our institutions. We’re proud that every public college and university in the state has a racial equity plan working toward this, and to boost progress, Governor Jared Polis’ 2020 budget proposal includes funding for a first-in-the-nation Chief Educational Equity Officer to lead the way.”

Hard Truths ties generational declines in college degree attainment among Black adults to the retreat from race-conscious policies, including affirmative action, which colleges and equity advocates continue to defend in the courts.

“Students of color deserve access to higher education, and race-conscious admissions is an important, constitutionally sound tool for ensuring colleges are equally open to talented students of color,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “State leaders and educational institutions should redouble their efforts to even the playing field, including overturning bans on affirmative action and authorizing public and private colleges to consider race alongside other important factors as part of a holistic admissions program.”

Hard Truths concludes with 10 race-conscious policy recommendations addressing college admissions and degree attainment, higher education funding, student debt relief, and campus climate:

  1. Colleges and universities should adopt a renewed commitment to affirmative action and use holistic admissions criteria that include race as a factor.
  2. Colleges and universities should stop overrelying on traditional measures of “merit” and other admissions preferences that disadvantage students of color and significantly reduce their use of donor, legacy, and sports preferences that disproportionately benefit White and wealthy students.
  3. Institutions of higher education, states, and the federal government should provide to the public more data on college opportunity and outcomes that is disaggregated by race and ethnicity.
  4. States should remove bans on the use of affirmative action in higher education and beyond.
  5. States should design statewide race-conscious higher education attainment goals and strategies to achieve them.
  6. States should invest resources in colleges that provide high-quality opportunities for students of color, as opposed to using race-neutral higher education funding formulas.
  7. The federal government should invest more in historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), tribal colleges, and other minority-serving institutions (MSIs), and ensure enrollment-driven MSIs are truly serving students of color.
  8. The federal government should make states work toward closing gaps in spending by race in K-12 schools and in public higher education as a requirement for any state/federal partnerships.
  9. The federal government should design loan forgiveness and other student debt policy solutions to benefit students of color and close racial wealth gaps.
  10. The federal government should require accreditors to examine colleges’ racial climate on campus.