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In 1968, galvanized by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., nine Harvard Medical School (HMS) faculty met to address the dearth of students of color in their departments. The resultant committee dedicated itself to recruiting underrepresented applicants beginning with the Class of 1973 in one of the nation’s first diversity initiatives in higher education. HMS, which had enrolled one Black student in the Class of 1972, enrolled 16 students of color in the Class of 1973.1 Among the students in HMS’ early diversity initiative cohorts was Dale Gloria Blackstock, who was born to a single mother and raised in poverty with her five siblings.2 Dr. Blackstock was a first-generation college student who applied to medical school on the advice of a chemistry professor. At Harvard, she shared classes with peers whose parents were Harvard professors or physicians themselves. She graduated in 1976 and took a residency and fellowship before settling down to practice medicine in the Brooklyn neighborhood where she grew up. She quickly became a trusted mentor for Black medical students and practitioners, and a leader in her underserved Brooklyn community.3 Her twin daughters, Uché and Oni, went on to form the first Black mother-daughter legacy pairs from Harvard Medical School – they graduated in 2005 and both returned to New York City to practice medicine.4

A legacy under threat
The admissions problem
Educational benefits of diversity
The intergenerational value of a college degree

As children, Uché and Oni followed their mother to work and conferences; they grew up assuming that most physicians were Black.5 In reality, at the time they stepped foot on Harvard’s campus, Black physicians comprised about 5% of the profession.6 And affirmative action programs like the one that facilitated their mother’s practice and advocacy were faced with looming existential threats. Just 10 years after Uché and Oni’s graduation from Harvard Medical School – and fewer than 50 years after HMS’ first diversity initiatives – Harvard was sued in a case intended to end affirmative action admissions in American higher education: Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard.7

 In higher education, affirmative action takes on the form of race-conscious admissions policies that allow colleges and universities to take account of an applicant’s race as one of many factors in their evaluation, ultimately allowing them to look beyond the confines of applicants’ past educational opportunities to get a sense of their true potential. Decades of restrictions on the scope of affirmative action and its legal underpinnings have limited its impact. At its best, though, affirmative action plays an important role in redressing centuries of educational inequality, and it benefits both present and future generations. Courts, admissions offices, and policymakers across the country should recognize affirmative action’s potential to redress the disadvantages faced by students of color in a persistently unequal education landscape.

Affirmative action facilitates the matriculation of talented, underrepresented students of color at quality educational institutions, particularly highly selective universities with competitive admissions. This immediately benefits both direct beneficiaries of affirmative action – who reap the rewards of a college education, their peers – who access the resultant educational benefits of diverse learning environments, and society at large – which benefits socially and economically from maximizing America’s pool of talented graduates and reinforcing our multiracial democracy. It also has intergenerational benefits, as having a college-educated parent is itself an advantage. By promoting degree attainment among Black students who may be or become parents, affirmative action can be a useful tool in redressing historical intergenerational disadvantage and unlocking opportunities that reflect and reward Black students’ talent and hard work.

A Legacy Under Threat: The Vision and Impact of Affirmative Action

Affirmative action in higher education was conceived as an essential tool for beginning to neutralize unequal educational opportunities across racial lines in American education. It did so by facilitating integration at the nation’s most selective higher education institutions.8 Early affirmative action programs came soon after Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which documented the profoundly disparate educational opportunities provided to white and non-white students in segregated public schools.9 Historical discrimination had also long barred qualified Black students from attending higher education institutions: Pauli Murray, a civil rights feminist whose scholarship helped Thurgood Marshall develop his Brown v. Board strategy, was denied admission to graduate school at the University of North Carolina in 1938 because she was Black.10


Through affirmative action practices, colleges and universities consider an applicant in fuller context, which helps to offset the admissions disadvantages that students of color incur by virtue of unequal educational opportunities in primary and secondary school. Early affirmative action programs had immediate and significant impacts on Black college enrollment, but challenges to the scope of affirmative action have rolled back its early successes.


In the 1960s, early affirmative action programs quickly facilitated the increased enrollment of Black students, particularly after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. galvanized a major push to diversify higher education institutions. Affirmative action spurred a huge surge in Black college admissions, particularly at highly selective, high-status colleges and universities, where affirmative action has been shown to boost underrepresented student enrollment most powerfully.11 The number of Black students admitted to Ivy League universities and peer institutions rose sharply in 1969, often by more than double.12 Black college student enrollment doubled across the board between 1970 and 1980, up to about a million from 522,000. By 1976, the proportion of Black college students caught up with Black Americans’ representation in the broader college-age population.13


endnote 14

Almost immediately, affirmative action practices were challenged in court and fought over in state legislatures across the nation as the country grappled with how to effectively achieve desegregation and break the legacy of Jim Crow. As early as 1974, a lawsuit brought by a white student rejected by the University of Washington Law School, claiming that the school racially discriminated against him in admissions, was dismissed as moot.15 As other initial – and more successful – challenges to affirmative action played out, Black college enrollment gains subsided. In 1985, the front page of the New York Times warned, “Minority Enrollment in Colleges is Declining.”16 Black Americans’ proportion of four-year college enrollments, having risen from 3% to 10.3% between 1972 and 1976, fell to 9.6% by 1982.17


The last decades of the 20th century saw a tug-of-war over affirmative action: Courts affirmed an increasingly watered-down version of affirmative action, and proponents and critics of affirmative action alternated successes in courts and legislatures. Between 1980 and 2004, there were modest and mixed successes in Black students’ enrollment as a share of four-year college attendees at the 26 highest-ranked universities and the 23 highest-ranked liberal arts colleges.18 Some universities in the South and in states like Maryland and Missouri saw solid improvements over this period, possibly because affirmative action may have been slow to take hold in the 1970s in such states. Emory University led the enrollment increase with a 6.2-point change (3.0% to 9.2%), while the percentage of Black students either decreased or remained the same at 13 of the 49 schools.19


The varying prohibitions on and uses of affirmative action across states and schools during this period make it difficult to chart the impact of affirmative action policies on Black college enrollment at a broad scale. But differences in Black enrollment trajectories at comparable schools operating under different affirmative action restrictions can provide an illustrative test. For example: UC Berkeley, a top-tier public school in California, was subjected to a statewide ban on affirmative action in 1997. Stanford, an elite private school 40 miles south of Berkeley, was exempted from that ban due to its private status. At UC Berkeley, the Black share of enrollments doubled from 1980 (3.6%) to 1995 (6.7%); after the 1997 ban on affirmative action, Black enrollment plummeted, and by 2004, Black enrollment at Berkeley was identical to the level seen in 1980.20 Stanford, however, enrolled Black students at a level 5.6 points higher in 2004 than in 1980 (constituting 11.7% of the school’s undergraduate population, the second-highest proportion among elite universities).21 The 92% graduation rate for Black Stanford students around 2004 shows that Black Stanford admits were well-qualified and suggests that Black students’ decreased representation at Berkeley was not due to lack of qualification.22

endnote 23

More recently, in the past two decades, a decline in Black enrollment has permeated both elite institutions and higher education as a whole. This decline results from a confluence of factors broadly applicable to college education – like its escalating cost and concerns about potential returns on the investment – as well as factors particular to Black students and families – like the economic hardship in many Black communities, Black students’ feelings of being unwelcome or unrepresented on campuses, and college admissions practices.24 Almost 60% of the 101 most selective public colleges and universities saw a decline in the proportion of Black undergraduates between 2000 and 2017. Only 9% of highly selective institutions enroll a proportion of Black students comparable to the Black share of that state’s college-aged population.25 Black enrollment in higher education institutions, as a whole, declined from 2.5 million in 2010 to 1.9 million in 2020. That constituted a nearly 17% decrease in the number of Black students at two- and four-year colleges, while white enrollment fell only 9%. Black enrollment dropped by more than half on at least 500 campuses.26


While the political will for affirmative action may have waned, the systems of educational inequality that have led to unequal educational experiences and outcomes, including the decline in Black enrollment in higher education institutions, remain. Colleges and universities must draw upon every tool at their disposal to recruit and enroll Black and other underrepresented students to ensure that they do not overlook the next Dr. Blackstock because she is born into a low-income neighborhood and attends a segregated, under-resourced school. Further gutting affirmative action and limiting or banning race-consciousness in admissions will critically limit higher education institutions’ ability to do so.

Original Content
"We Won't go Back"
Why Students are urging the Supreme Court to Support Race Conscious Admissions
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The Admissions Problem: An Enduring Legacy of Separate and Unequal

The profound educational inequality that spurred early affirmative action programs persists, but in limiting the scope of, and justification for, affirmative action over the years, courts have also deprived affirmative action of this powerful justification for its continued necessity. The iterative stripping back of affirmative action, outlined above, has coincided with a legal and public discourse shift from viewing affirmative action as a rectifying measure for historical inequality to viewing it as a facilitator of the benefits of diversity and diverse learning environments for all students. By 1978, affirmative action as a means of redressing historical exclusion and racial inequality had only four votes in the Supreme Court; in upholding the use of race as a factor in admissions decisions, Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. instead enshrined what has become known as the diversity rationale for affirmative action. Diversity improves “the atmosphere of ‘speculation, experiment and creation’ [that is] so essential to the quality of education,” Powell wrote. “Our tradition and experience lend support to the view that the contribution of diversity is substantial.”27 Stated otherwise, affirmative action facilitates diversity, which is a compelling goal because of the benefits it dispenses to all participants in an educational setting or environment. The educational benefits of diversity have become the singularly validated legal justification for – and the nucleus of public discourse about – affirmative action in the years since.

Letting the diversity rationale crowd out consideration of affirmative action’s role in redressing educational inequity belies the urgent need for the higher education admissions space to account for the legacy of Jim Crow and the enduring inequality of education access in K-12.

Harvard students rally outside the Supreme Court during SFFA V. Harvard and SFFA v. UNC. Photos by Allison Shelley for LDF
Students rally while the Supreme Court hears arguments in SFFA v. Harvard and SFFA v. UNC. Photos by Allison Shelley for LDF

The legacy of segregation deeply mars and continues to impact higher education opportunities in the United States. Higher education institutions, which were originally designed to serve the white majority, denied or limited access to Black students for centuries.28 Many schools, particularly state schools in the South, refused admission to Black students until the Supreme Court forced integration in the mid-20th century.29 Early measures that might have powerfully extended educational access for Black students fell short. For example, the G.I. bill was intended to expand educational opportunity for all eligible returning World War II servicemen; in practice, Black veterans were routinely denied access to their subsidies or tracked into vocational programs and less-selective educational institutions.30 Historical discrimination in higher education impacts today’s Black applicants, too: Contemporary practices such as “legacy admissions” reward students whose family members attended a particular college or university. Many students of color applying to college in recent decades cannot access these special admissions programs because their parents and grandparents were denied admission based on race.31


We also see the impact of historical and contemporary segregation in racially disparate educational opportunities in K-12. Today’s public schools are more racially isolated than at any point in the last 40 years. As then-Senator Barack Obama observed in 2008, “segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education – and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s Black and white students.”32  The inferior resources and unequal opportunities available to Black students at segregated schools constrain their opportunity to thrive and demonstrate their full potential. And in racially mixed schools, many Black students lack support, face discrimination and fare worse than white students.33 Black students are treated with second-class status no matter what type of school they attend, entrenching substantial achievement gaps that disadvantage qualified students of color in postsecondary admissions.


Affirmative action is one of many potential solutions to address the educational inequalities generated and maintained by racial segregation in schools. Other reforms, like changing the mechanisms by which public education is funded, aim to equalize educational opportunities upstream: Ensuring that districts in high-poverty areas get as much funding as districts in low-poverty areas, for example, would help to address the resource gaps that many students of color face, thereby boosting educational opportunity and outcomes.34 Affirmative action is a downstream approach to the same problem: Recognizing that educational opportunities are not equal across racial lines, affirmative action serves as a course-correction that takes these inequities into consideration in the evaluation of student potential.

The inferior resources and unequal opportunities available to Black students at segregated schools constrain their opportunity to thrive and demonstrate their full potential. And in racially mixed schools, many Black students lack support, face discrimination and fare worse than white students.

The state of public education and the varying advantages and disadvantages it metes out along racial lines underscore the need for corrective remedies like affirmative action. Black and Latino students are more likely than white students to grow up in segregated communities where historical disinvestment has led to poor infrastructure and lower-quality public schools.35 Two-thirds of Black and Latino students attend predominantly non-white schools, most of which are in urban areas and under-resourced relative to their whiter, suburban counterparts.36 More than 60% of Black and Latino students attend schools where more than half of the students live below the poverty line; that figure is 28% for white students.37 Black students live in the most segregated neighborhoods, and they are seven times as likely as white students to attend high-poverty schools with a high share of students of color.38


The lower-quality education that students of color receive bears directly on their ability to amass the credentials and indicia of merit that colleges seek in applicants. For example, colleges consider the rigor of students’ coursework in evaluating their GPAs and transcripts. But Black students and students who attend schools in rural areas have significantly less access to Advanced Placement (AP) coursework than the students against whom they compete in admissions. Where AP courses are offered, Black and Latino students do not enroll in them at rates comparable to their white and Asian peers, possibly due in part to the internalization of the cultural biases that contribute to educators’ low rates of referral of Black and Latino students for advanced classes.39 “Tracking,” the process by which educators and schools designate students for different educational paths based on their academic performance as young children and teens, bars many Black students from long-term equal educational achievement by gatekeeping rigorous and advanced classes.40 Research shows that student race, not academic capabilities, predict academic track, with Black and Latino students much more likely to be enrolled in lower tracks.41 Research has suggested that high-performing Black students are particularly disadvantaged in referrals that rely in part on subjective measures like teacher evaluations; one study of algebra placement rates among 3,000 eighth-graders found that for Black students who demonstrated high math performance, their odds of being placed in algebra were reduced by two-fifths compared to their white peers.42

Colleges also place value on students’ extracurricular involvement as a differentiating factor between otherwise academically comparable students; in fact, encouraging extracurricular activities is the most popular recommendation among wealthy families to aid a college application.43 But extracurricular activities can demand time and monetary investments that students from lower-income families – disproportionately students of color – cannot make. Students from households earning less than $100,000 have twice the level of extracurricular non-participation as their peers from wealthier households, and the cost of extracurricular activities can be prohibitive.44 Students who must work jobs or take care of siblings may not have time available to join clubs or sports.


Finally, teacher recommendations play an important role in admissions decisions. High student-to-teacher ratios can impede the quality of student-teacher relationships, denying students the opportunity to develop the close, personal relationships that reflect favorably in college recommendations. Students of color and low-income students are particularly affected: Student-teacher ratios are higher in schools with larger student-of-color and low-income student populations.45 In Michigan, for example, a quarter of Black ninth graders take one or more core academic subject in classrooms of 40 or more students, which is more than three times the rate for white students.46 The same pattern exists for counselors, who also write college application letters contextualizing students’ applications.47 Across American high schools, a counselor who serves mostly students of color serves 34 more students than a counselor who serves fewer students of color.48 These and other factors put students of color at a disadvantage in the college admissions game.

“No racial group has a monopoly on talent, but some students enjoy

a monopoly on opportunity.” —Legal Defense Fund Brief

in SFFA v. Harvard49

Harvard v. SFFA
Read the amicus brief submitted by the Legal Defense Fund
Learn More

Traditional college admissions metrics, without the context that race-conscious admissions allow, underpredict the potential of many Black students. This holds true for Black applicants at under-resourced, underperforming schools and Black applicants at more well-resourced schools who nonetheless face systemic or interpersonal racism that impedes their educational development and outcomes.50 Given the significant variation in the opportunities available at different schools, and the fact that these differences operate on racial lines, colleges cannot discern applicants’ potential without using a race-conscious admissions scheme that brings their respective educational opportunities into view. Absent that full view of each applicant, a student who has had the opportunity to attain the traditional indicia of merit may be falsely perceived as the college’s best bet. With admission to a competitive four-year university, these students hold the ticket to replicating and capitalizing on their intergenerational advantages – for example, by raising their children in similarly wealthy neighborhoods with similarly robust educational opportunities.


Students who lacked educational opportunities in K-12 may attend universities with fewer opportunities, where they will face more precarious employment prospects and lower lifetime earnings. Many high-achieving students from disadvantaged backgrounds will never attend college: As of the late 1990s, low-income high school graduates in the top academic quartile attended college at the same rate as high-income high school graduates in the bottom quartile of achievement.51


Affirmative action is too limited a tool to radically transform the systems of inequality and structural barriers that form the foundation of American society.52 But it is an important remedial practice to help mitigate the racial disparities in the intergenerational accumulation of advantage and disadvantage. In addition to redressing educational inequality, there are immediate and downstream benefits of increased Black enrollment in institutions of higher education.

Educational Benefits of Diversity

Boosting the participation rates of Black students in institutions of higher education will unlock present and future benefits. One benefit that immediately accrues to participants in higher education environments is the enhanced value of college attendance through the educational benefits of diversity. This is the legal ground on which affirmative action programs are permitted; it is also the widest-reaching benefit of affirmative action’s facilitation of diversity. The educational benefits of diversity are well-established. Students of all races stand to benefit from diverse schools not only through improved social-emotional learning during their formative years but also because the cognitive and interpersonal skills that diversity imparts are increasingly valuable, and valued by employers, in a global economy. Diverse educational settings improve critical thinking and problem-solving skills, facilitate the development of cross-racial trust, and improve students’ adeptness in navigating cultural differences.53 Diversity in education can also decrease white students’ implicit biases, which can reflect the spectrum of unconscious attitudes toward people and concepts.54 At the college level, efforts to increase campus diversity have significantly reduced negative implicit bias and its detrimental effects, according to the American Psychological Association.55

Students rally the night before the arguments in Harvard v. SFFA and UNC v. SFFA. Photo by Allison Shelley for LDF

White students who engage with diverse sets of peers also see benefits in critical thinking skills and enhanced cognitive engagement. A significant body of research contends that “diverse classrooms, in which students learn cooperatively alongside those whose perspectives and backgrounds are different from their own, are beneficial to all students […] because they promote creativity, motivation, deeper learning, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills.”56  When white students consider problems and issues from within diverse learning contexts, the complexity with which they do so increases. In racially homogenous groups, white students experience no such increase in cognitive stimulation.57


There is evidence that diverse classroom environments facilitate more robust discussions and learning overall. College students who experience positive interactions with students of other races demonstrate more open minds and more engaging classroom conversations, which in turn facilitate improved learning “because abstract concepts are tied directly to concrete examples drawn from a range of experiences” in diverse classrooms.58


Experience in diverse learning environments also makes students more marketable after they graduate from college. As part of the record in SFFA v. Harvard and SFFA v. University of North Carolina, 82 corporations and business groups signed three amicus briefs asserting that the success of their companies in a global economy depends on hiring highly trained employees of all backgrounds; they added that diverse learning environments are “crucial to producing employable, productive, value-adding citizens in business.”59


Increasing the numbers of underrepresented students at four-year colleges and universities cultivates the value of diverse learning environments, to the benefit of all students. Benefits of affirmative action through boosted Black college enrollment will also accrue to Black students and their progeny.

Students of all races stand to benefit from diverse schools not only through improved social-emotional learning during their formative years but also because the cognitive and interpersonal skills that diversity imparts are increasingly valuable, and valued by employers, in a global economy.

When Affirmative Action Disappears: Burden Without Benefit in California After Prop 209

Protestors march in Santa Ana, California protesting the implementation of prop 209. Photo via Getty Images.

Recall that Black representation at UC Berkeley was steadily improving until Proposition 209, which banned the UC system from using race or ethnicity in admissions decision-making, took effect in 1997 University of California schools – the UC system – serve nearly 300,000 students and have provided the most robust data on the effects of affirmative action bans on students of color’s enrollment and educational and life outcomes.60 

Berkeley economist Zachary Bleemer undertook a comprehensive analysis of UC system data in 2020 and found that Prop 209 harmed Black and Latino students by a number of relevant enrollment and economic outcome measures without meaningfully improving the long-term outcomes of white and Asian students.61 Black and Latino enrollment at the UCs fell steeply across the system in the wake of Prop 209. Students who before Prop 209 would have enrolled at the system’s most selective universities – Berkeley or UCLA – instead attended less selective UC campuses and other public and private universities.62 

California’s affirmative action ban led to worse outcomes for Black and Latino students in early adulthood. Degree attainment for Black and Latino applicants fell overall and in STEM fields, causing a 5% average annual decline in their wages through their early 30s, and leading to a 3% cumulative decline in the number of underrepresented students earning over $100,000 by the mid-2010s.63 Prop 209 also deterred thousands of qualified students from underrepresented backgrounds from applying to the UC system.65


The white and Asian American students who attended UC Berkeley after Prop 209, on the other hand, did not receive much material benefit from the policy. Bleemer concluded that they would have enrolled in comparably selective colleges elsewhere and would have had the same chances to graduate and begin successful careers in the absence of Prop 209. White and Asian American students’ enrollment in more-selective universities increased following Prop 209 as Black and Latino enrollment declined, but evidence suggests that those white and Asian students already had access to similar-quality institutions, and Prop 209 had only modest long-run effects on their economic outcomes. But Black and Latino students had been seeing substantially above-average returns as a result of more-selective UC enrollment before affirmative action was banned, and they consequently suffered disproportionately after Prop 209. This finding corroborates a 2014 study of “somewhat selective” and “highly selective” colleges, which found that attending a more elite school had negligible effects on lifetime earnings except for Black and Latino students and students who come from less-educated families. For these students, attending a more elite university had a large effect on future earnings.66

Increasing the numbers of underrepresented students at four-year colleges and universities cultivates the value of diverse learning environments, to the benefit of all students.

Insufficient Alternatives: Texas Under the Top Ten Percent Rule

Students rally in support of U.T. Austin's admissions policy ahead of arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. Photo via Getty Images

Given the structural inequities embedded in the American K-12 education system, it is difficult to identify a demonstrative way for selective schools to achieve a racially diverse student body when race cannot be part of the review of applicants. Critics of affirmative action have suggested that alternative pathways to boost enrollment figures among students of color may be a viable alternative, but these alternative plans do not compensate for the loss of racial diversity that affirmative action would otherwise facilitate.66

Texas adopted the Top Ten Percent Rule in 1998 after a federal court banned race-based affirmative action in Texas. This admissions scheme grants automatic admission at many Texas public colleges and universities to the top 10% of each in-state high school class. It has been much less effective than affirmative action at facilitating enrollment among students from diverse backgrounds, however. In the years since the rule’s implementation, the raw number of Latino students at Texas’ flagship schools has grown but has not kept pace with Texas’ Latino population increase; the number of Black students at Texas flagship schools has fallen. The best studies of the short-term effects of the Top Ten Percent Rule suggest that it was able to recover only about a third of the racial and ethnic diversity lost to the affirmative action ban. Overall, the Top Ten Percent Rule’s first 18 years showed “little to no equity-producing effects.”67


Studies of the modest impact of Texas’ Top Ten Percent Rule have cohered with the research out of California, suggesting that measures to improve access and equity in higher education admissions help underrepresented students and do not harm others. Students who gain access to UT Austin as a result of the Top Ten Percent Rule see higher college enrollment and graduation rates as well as earnings gains 7-9 years after college. Racial groups who lose access to UT Austin under the Ten Percent Rule do not suffer declines in overall college enrollment, graduation, or earnings.68

The Intergenerational Value of a College Degree

Affirmative action’s facilitation of more Black students in higher education also helps those students amass the benefits that a college education provides, both to the graduate and to successive generations. The recruitment and retention of Black students in higher numbers expand Black Americans’ exposure to the financial and other benefits of a college degree – benefits that can span generations. The positive effects of a college education on economic prospects are well-documented, but the benefits of a college education do not accrue equally to all students. Although the benefits of a college degree can be elusive for Black graduates, it is critical to recruit and retain Black students at high-quality, higher education institutions in order to protect the effects that do accrue to college graduates and their progeny. This is a particularly urgent charge given the research finding that attending a more elite school has a significant impact on lifetime earnings for Black and Latino students and students from low-income backgrounds.69


In general, bachelor’s degree holders see median annual earnings that are 84% – or $36,000 – higher than those of high school graduates who did not graduate from college.70 In 2021, the median income of recent college graduates between 22 and 27 years old reached $52,000, while high school graduates in the same age range saw median earnings of $30,000 per year.71 Bachelor’s degree holders experience poverty at a rate 3.5 times lower than those with only a high school degree.72 In the United States, college and advanced degree holders reap the benefits of economic growth: In the past decade, all net job growth has gone to workers with bachelor’s or graduate degrees.73


Black students face barriers to reaping the financial rewards of a college degree. Even though a college education translates to a larger salary regardless of race, Black graduates have greater student loan debt and lower incomes than their white peers.74 That difference is partly a function of the schools that Black and white students attend. White students are almost five times as likely to attend a selective university than Black students, even when controlling for family income.75 The realm of more selective, wealthier universities – which generally offer better financial aid packages and enhanced post-graduation prospects – is also where affirmative action plays the greatest role in reducing racial enrollment gaps.76 Restrictions on affirmative action will exacerbate the racial disparities in selective college enrollment that, in turn, contribute to the racial wealth gap among degree holders.

Students from across several higher education institutions gather the day before arguments in SFFA v. Harvard and SFFA v. UNC. Photo by Allison Shelley for LDF.
Students gather the night before arguments in SFFA v, Harvard and SFFA v. UNC to make posters and signs for a rally. Photo by Allison Shelley for LDF

Despite the disadvantages that Black college degree holders face compared to their white peers, a college degree has a substantial impact on Black graduates’ future prospects. Their income and life outcomes also shape their ability to pass on intergenerational advantages to their children. Affirmative action helps foster that advantage for Black students, who have historically borne intergenerational disadvantages wrought by residential and educational segregation.

The children of college-educated parents fare better than the children of parents who have only a high school diploma, and parental education status influences children’s outcomes later in life whether the children attend college or not. The benefits of a college education – higher income, for example, which can facilitate better and more stable housing in better school districts with better educational opportunities – help to foster the exact advantages that Black children often lack. When the racial gaps in high-quality college enrollment widen, more Black children are robbed of those intergenerational advantages. When racial enrollment gaps close, more Black children can reap the rewards of the intergenerational advantages that college facilitates.


The impact of having parents with bachelor’s degrees on a child’s life course can be significant. A study of more than 200,000 employed Americans between the ages of 30 and 55 at three time points found a substantial impact of parental degree status on children’s mid-career earnings. The children of parents with bachelor’s degrees earned about 7.9% more than the children of parents without bachelor’s degrees in 1993; that figure rose to 13.1% in 2003 and 9.9% in 2015.77 Only some of this gap is attributable to the fact that college-educated parents send their children to college at higher rates than non-college-educated parents: Even after controlling for the highest degree attained by the offspring in question, parental education significantly and substantially affected the offspring’s mid-career earnings. Among bachelor’s degree holders, the earnings boost incurred by having parents with bachelor’s degrees was 5.5% in 1993 and around 10% in 2003 and 2015.78 In all cohorts (1993, 2003, and 2015), earlier career professionals (ages 30-39) who had parents with higher education degrees earned more than their counterparts with high school-educated parents; income at this stage affects parents’ ability to provide quality early childhood experiences and enrichment for their own children.79

Gutting affirmative action will limit colleges’ and universities’ ability to mitigate these enrollment gaps, leaving more Black students without the advantages that a high-quality education at a selective college or university provides – and depriving us all of the contributions that their experiences at these institutions may have enabled.

That finding is reinforced in a 2017 study concentrating on earnings differences among college-educated Americans, which found a high correlation between a college attendee’s income and that of their parents. The driving force behind the relationship is that students from higher income families are much more likely to attend highly selective colleges, and students from those colleges go on to earn significantly more after graduation than students who attend less selective colleges. The influence of parental background on their offspring’s future earnings, then, is mediated through the child’s access to a particular level of college. Recall that Black students are severely underrepresented at elite schools. The gap between Black students’ share of the college-age population and their share of public flagship university enrollment was 10 points in 2015.80 The gap was six points at Ivy League universities, four points at the University of California campuses, eight points at top liberal arts colleges, and seven points at other top universities.81 Even with affirmative action in place, Black students were not effectively recruited to and enrolled in selective, high-quality institutions that provide the greatest opportunity for future success. Gutting affirmative action will limit colleges’ and universities’ ability to mitigate these enrollment gaps, leaving more Black students without the advantages that a high-quality education at a selective college or university provides – and depriving us all of the contributions that their experiences at these institutions may have enabled.


Because parents’ status impacts opportunities and outcomes for their children, Black Americans’ ability or inability to access high-quality postsecondary education also impacts their children’s futures. Affirmative action allows more Black students to unlock the host of advantages that accompany a high-quality postsecondary degree, and then pass the benefits of that degree onto the next generation via the intergenerational transmission of advantage.

Legal Defense Fund President and Director-Counsel Janai Nelson and LDF legal team stand outside the Supreme Court. LDF submitted an amicus brief in SFFA v. Harvard and SFFA v. UNC. Photo by Allison Shelley for LDF.
Students hold signs outside of the Supreme Court during oral arguments in SFFA v. Harvard and SFFA V. UNC. Photo by Allison Shelley for LDF.

A wholesale transformation of public policy relating to housing, education, healthcare, early childhood development and other realms is needed to disentangle the effects of segregation, disinvestment and explicit racism from intra- and intergenerational economic outcomes.82 But access to a quality postsecondary education can play a role in mitigating economic outcomes, which makes affirmative action a powerful tool for promoting intergenerational advantage where it has been severely lacking – and mitigating the pervasive racial inequality of opportunity that affirmative action was designed to address.


Dr. Blackstock’s talent, diligence and dedication made her a qualified medical school applicant and a trusted physician and mentor. It was structural barriers rooted in segregation and racism, not Dr. Blackstock’s own qualifications, that may have kept her from becoming a guiding force in the Black medical community were it not for affirmative action.83 We risk tantamount losses if affirmative action is further restricted in institutions of higher education. Talent and potential are all around, but we need affirmative action to unlock the potential contributions of students who have not had an equal opportunity to thrive.

Authored by Jackie O’Neil, Research Associate 

Published May 2023