How the Demise of Affirmative Action Will Impact HBCUs

by Al-Tony Gilmore

On June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court of the United States restricted the ability of colleges and universities to use race-conscious admission policies. In the companion cases of Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina, the Court held that race-based affirmative action programs in college admission processes violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, effectively barring affirmative action in higher education admissions.

However, in the 6-3 decision the majority opinion states, “Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life.” This provision lends itself to questions and ambiguity as it seems inapplicable for White applicants, and if factored into consideration of an ethnic minority applicant then race returns to the dialogue of decision-making in college admissions.

Schools that do not agree with the decision – and have willingly complied with affirmative action less because they were pressured to do so, but more because of their commitment to equity and diversity – will certainly test the meaning and utility of that provision in their application processes. For HBCUs, the Court’s decision may have consequences deserving of closer scrutiny. The implications are dissimilar to those of PWIs in terms of enrollment demographics, especially for elite HBCUs. Seemingly those schools have come full circle and may stand to regain a large share of top-tiered students, most of whom were lost to selective and elite PWIs at the onset of affirmative action. The opposite dynamic will likely be in play for those PWIs who, with post-affirmative action color-blind admission policies, will admit substantially fewer Black students. It will not be because those students are not qualified for admission, but more because those schools have such incredibly low admission rates, and routinely reject highly qualified students of all backgrounds. Affirmative action insured that well-prepared Black applicants received race-based consideration, although that consideration alone was not tantamount to admission.

For more than half a century, affirmative action shaped the contours and defined the context of equity-based college admissions. By way of background, affirmative action was a direct result of the Civil Rights Movement, first appearing in 1961 after President John Kennedy created the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. Hobart Taylor, a Black member of the committee, coined the phrase. He considered it to be forceful language for admonishing employers to be more intentional in hiring marginalized people. In subsequent years, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon used the phrase in executive orders ensuring that government employment applicants be treated fairly and not discriminated against because of ” race, color, religion, sex or national origin ” and that government contractors follow those same mandates in employment practices.

Shortly afterward, PWIs and much of higher education voluntarily embraced similar policies to confront ongoing racial discrimination and to promote equality. By 1969, many elite PWIs admitted twice as many Black students as they had the year before, and most PWIs began accepting significantly larger numbers of Black applicants. The success and experiences of those students, along with continued and targeted recruitment of Black students and court-ordered desegregation, led to double-digit Black percentage enrollment at many PWIs, and smaller but consistent Black enrollments at schools where a decade earlier Black enrollment was virtually nonexistent.

But by the mid-1970s, affirmative action policies at the elite and selective schools set off a backlash when White applicants who were denied admission to those schools claimed reverse discrimination. This triggered public discussion and debate on affirmative action which failed to overturn it but contributed to a negative perception that gained traction in much of America. David Evans, associate dean of admissions at Harvard, complained in 1975 about a false narrative and belief that “semi-literate Blacks are being accepted at the expense of White geniuses.”

In the 1978 case of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the Supreme Court forced many schools to change their affirmative action policies. Those were schools that had established specific quotas for Black admissions. The Court outlawed the practice as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment but maintained schools could still consider race as one factor among others. The Bakke decision shifted the emphasis of affirmative action away from social justice and more towards promoting diversity on college campuses, but it did not satisfy much of an increasingly conservative public.

In 1996 voters in California approved Proposition 209 which banned affirmative action at public colleges and universities. Over the next two decades, 10 states banned affirmative action in higher education, while the Supreme Court, once again, upheld the practice of race-conscious admissions by a slim 4-3 decision in challenges such as the 2016 Fisher v. University of Texas case. But it was clear that those tight Supreme Court margins for upholding affirmative action were in jeopardy when, in one term of office, President Donald Trump appointed three conservative justices to the Court, all of whom voted to end affirmative action in college admissions.

Within its first decade, which also coincided with the heightened race consciousness of the Black Power Movement, affirmative action practices contributed to the hiring of Black administrators, faculty, and staff and promoted curriculum changes and new academic programs at PWIs, many addressing social justice issues and implementing curricula inclusive of African American history and culture. Similarly, other ethnic minorities and women rode the coattails of affirmative action. Their unique issues and concerns also benefited and were reflected throughout a more inclusive higher education.

During that same initial decade of the 1960s, a widely publicized, influential, and equally controversial article on HBCUs commanded center stage in higher education. “The American Negro College,” by Harvard scholars Christopher Jencks and David Reisman, appeared in 1967 in the Harvard Educational Review. Owing to the prestige of the journal and the institutional affiliation of the authors, it immediately attracted attention in the academic community and spread to the popular media. It railed against HBCUs, describing the majority of them as “academic disaster areas” and became an instant flashpoint for supporters of HBCUs. The United Negro College Fund, HBCU presidents, the Black community, and others responded with well-crafted arguments and robust evidence to the contrary. Nonetheless, the damage to the perception and image of HBCUs – especially among many who had never set foot on an HBCU campus – was grievous and incalculable.
The article adversely impacted philanthropy to HBCUs; it helped persuade a generation of most, though not all, newly minted and highly promising young Black scholars to pursue career paths at PWIs over HBCUs; and it facilitated the migration of large numbers of preeminent tenured HBCU scholars to PWI campuses.

But where its consequences were most unsettling was in the college selection choices of many highly capable Black students, their parents, and guidance counselors. It facilitated an erosion of trust and confidence in HBCUs. Large numbers of those who prior to affirmative action and desegregation in higher education would have applied to the elite HBCUs of Howard, Morehouse, Spelman, Hampton, and Fisk chose to enroll instead at PWIs. Those more prominent HBCUs had comfortably maintained strong enrollments consistent with campus infrastructure and student capacity; highly selective admission policies and standards; large ratios between the number of those who applied for admission and the number accepted; appreciably larger endowments than other HBCUs; the highest percentage of second and third generation students from college trained parents; sizeable numbers of distinguished faculty in their respective fields; and they conferred degrees which enhanced resumes and social capital in the Black community and granted wider exposure and credibility with prospective employers and admission officers at prestigious graduate and professional schools.

The convergence and timing of that article, affirmative action, and increasing desegregation in higher education challenged all HBCUs which now had to compete on an unequal playing field with PWIs for both students and faculty. By the 1970s, more than a few were forced to lower admission standards in order to have critical masses of students necessary for their tuition-based business models. Fortunately, those actions did not receive much criticism because they coincided with increased federal support to increase college access for students from low-income families and underserved communities. This was anchored in the climate and academic programs and initiatives of President Johnson’s War on Poverty, such as the Upward Bound Program which offered financial aid, tutoring, and remedial assistance for students whose backgrounds required prerequisite preparation for rigorous college study at both HBCUs and PWIs.

Those interventions were supplemented with a range of complimentary federal assistance programs such as Pell Grants, National Defense Student Loans, and Direct PLUS loans. Since these programs started, they have become lifelines for HBCUs, who have become so dependent on them that most could no longer operate without the resources they provide. At a majority of HBCUs, two thirds or more of all enrolled students receive Pell Grants, and at eight of these schools more than 90 percent are recipients of them. There are only 13 of 105 HBCUs where low-income students are not a majority of all students. The elite and more admissions selective schools of Spelman and Morehouse have less than 40 percent of their students who qualify for Pell Grants. Hampton and Howard are the only HBCUs where low-income students constitute less than a third of the student body. However, it must be noted that there is no evidence that suggests that Pell Grant and other financial aid students perform less academically and that financial assistance informs us more about income than academic ability.

The HBCUs with the largest endowments are Spelman ($459 million), Morehouse ($186 million), Hampton ($348 million), and Howard ($862 million). The endowment of North Carolina A&T State University, the nation’s largest HBCU, at $164+ million is the closest to those schools. Largely because of its recognized STEM programs and consistent placement of graduates in lucrative salaried jobs, A&T recently drew over 25,000 applications for admission to a school of 12,500 students, making it one of the most competitive HBCUs for admission. Moreover, its faculty and staff secured a record $147.4 million in research and program funding for fiscal year 2023, the most ever for a HBCU, making A&T one of the University of North Carolina System’s top three most productive research universities. For those striking reasons, a credible argument can be made and should be made for its inclusion on the roster of elite HBCUs.

While those 5 schools are generally regarded as elite HBCUs – which are referred to as elite because invariably they are on all listings of top 10 HBCU rankings – among other selective institutions with robust and sustained academic reputations and rising in prestige are Xavier University, North Carolina Central University, Tuskegee University, Jackson State University, Florida A&M University, Claflin University, Southern University, Dillard University, and Clark-Atlanta University. Arguably, while these schools may not be as prestigious as the elite HBCUs, their acceptance rates are low enough for them to be categorized as selective institutions being that most have an acceptance rate of less than 50 percent.

Conventional wisdom is that the more prestigious a school seems, the greater its reputation and the desire to attend, and this provides school admission officials more discretion in selecting students whom they assume – based on a range of criteria – are better prepared for rigorous study and academic success. To be sure, there are many subjective and objective factors and considerations in determining the status of any school, and the range of metrics for those determinations – such as those used by U.S. News and World Report and other organizations – often do not find consensus or agreement among academics and the general public. But aside from endowments, ranking of academic programs, and public perceptions, the common denominators for selective and elite status remain the level of difficulty in gaining admission. However, it must be noted that admission rates at elite PWIs are far removed from those of elite HBCUs. For example, the admission rate at Harvard is 5 percent, and at Howard, that rate is about 32 percent. But Howard’s rate is much lower than moderately selective PWIs such as the University of Maryland (44 percent); Ohio State University (54 percent) and the University of Wisconsin (52 percent). Comparing such rates, however, can be deceptive as they may not reflect the quality of the applicant pools from which students are selected.

The demise of affirmative action will have profound implications for racial diversity at PWIs, especially the elite and selective institutions where admissions are more selective and because those schools are where affirmative action was most widely applied. Most U.S. colleges, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, accept over two thirds of their applicants. But where affirmative action is most impactful in those schools is not only in undergraduate enrollments but in admission to their graduate and professional schools where admissions are decidedly more selective.

At HBCUs, the Court’s ruling portends one thing for the elite and selective HBCUs and something else for most others, but nothing negative for either because both stand to benefit from what is hoped will be even larger applicant pools. The enrollment and survival challenges first faced by many HBCUs in the late 1960s and beyond are currently not as threatening for most, though it may be premature to assume those challenges reside exclusively in the past. Since the beginning of affirmative action and court-enforced desegregation in higher education, 12 HBCUs have had a cruel rendevous with destiny and were forced to close. Two with slightly more than double-digit enrollments are desperate for survival and remain open in name only. Among them are a small number with enrollments of less than 200 students, and some that accept 100 percent of those who apply. Most HBCUs have acceptance rates over 70 percent.

Before the Supreme Court decision, Black enrollments at many PWIs were already moving in the opposite direction of those at HBCUs. There is data from the public PWIs – likely a harbinger for what is to be expected in the wake of the decision – that points to marked declines in Black undergraduate enrollment at institutions in states that have already banned race-conscious college admissions. Moreover, PWIs across the country have struggled with shrinking enrollments since Covid. This is contrasted with the trend of record enrollments at HBCUs, most notably at the elite schools. During the pandemic, enrollment across higher education dropped by about 10 percent, while applications to HBCUs increased by nearly 3 percent.

Prior to the Supreme Court decision applications to public HBCUs were up 44 percent on average than the year before, according to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. There may be no single cause for this good fortune, other than a combination of the decline of affirmative action; unprecedented interest and financial support from corporations, philanthropy and lawmakers; White House initiatives; nationwide conversations on race following the George Floyd protests; the exorbitant costs of attending elite and selective PWIs; wider positive exposure of HBCUs in the media and popular culture; and the growing number of high profiled Black faculty, coaches and athletic recruits who have selected HBCUs over PWIs.

According to a 2022 report from Common Application, the number of college applications increased by 21.3 percent, and most HBCUs, particularly the elite ones have been the recipients of a fair share of that increase and are experiencing record-high enrollments. HBCU leaders have mixed feelings of excitement, caution, and trepidation over the unprecedented and growing applications for admission. “Even the most resourced institutions are experiencing greater demand than they can meet,” observes Micheal Lomax, president and chief executive of the United Negro College Fund.

David Thomas, president of Morehouse College, which has about 2,200 students, is less than sanguine about his school’s capacity for larger numbers of students, though he concedes that more students translate to more tuition – the financial lifeline of tuition-based business model schools. He projects that applications for the competitive admissions process could double from 7,000 to 14,000 within a few years, and that means “many more men who deserve, based on merit, to be at Morehouse” may exceed the capacity of the infrastructure and compromise the school’s promise of small classes and course quality.

Wayne A.I. Frederick, former president of Howard, echoed those sentiments when citing the 8,500 applications its medical school received this year when its capacity allowed for only 126 to be admitted as first-year students. At Hampton University where freshman enrollment is up 30 percent, president Darrell K. Williams feels confident that his school is “well prepared to receive more applicants” though he did not specify at what point the capacity of his infrastructure would be challenged.

Robert Palmer, professor of educational leadership at Howard, anticipates larger numbers of Black students applying to well-known and selective HBCUs as “safe places and places where race is not an issue,” and places they feel more welcome than on PWI campuses. Another plausible reason many high-achieving Black students may apply to elite HBCUs is because they may serve as “safety net” schools in the application process. Those students and their parents and counselors realize the difficulty of gaining admission to highly selective and elite PWIs, where denials are not uncommon for students with excellent grades, impressive standardized test scores, a wide range of extra-curricular activities, positive recommendations, and exemplary essays.

In the post-affirmative action era, those students will have better odds of gaining admission at the elite HBCUs, though some may be denied admission at one elite PWI and be accepted at another. Still, under these various scenarios, it is reasonable to expect an increase in the applications of such students to the elite HBCUs. And as David Thomas of Morehouse implies, this could mean that entry into the elite HBCUs will become even more competitive and there may not be enough freshman slots to accommodate all of those who qualify for admission by current standards. This will only add to the exclusivity of those schools because when acceptance rates are lowered, the more popular and prestigious they become. Despite the expected enrollment upswings and in the context of the larger society, not a single president of any HBCU disagrees with Justice Kentanji Brown Jackson’s dissenting opinion that the court’s decision “is truly a tragedy for us all.”

Al-Tony Gilmore is Distinguished Historian Emeritus of the National Education Association and has researched and written widely on HBCUs, and African American sports and social history, including three books on African American educators. He has served as a history professor at Howard University, the University of Maryland, and as a visiting scholar of history at George Washington University. Dr. Gilmore is curator of the widely acclaimed Voter Suppression exhibition, which recently appeared at the Maltz Jewish Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, and is currently on display at the Skirball Museum in Los Angeles, California.

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  1. Dr. Gilmore your comprehensive statements of history and laws. regarding affirmative action. Negates the rationale of the court’s ruling. Equal protection was based on the law, implying whites had no privileges. The lack of a moral center is racist, not justice.

  2. A very complex issue. Dr. Gilmore’s through statistical analysis has made it easier to decipher and comprehend. It is my belief that the cream will always rise to the top regardless of the college one attends (within reason).But that rise becomes exponentially easier for those who attend “name brand” colleges, i.e., PWI’s.

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