Shortsighted decision

Published July 6, 2023

By Higher Ed Works

Affirmative action was the legal remedy ending decades of racial discrimination in college admissions. It increased higher education access and opportunities long denied to African-Americans, Latinos, and other people of color.

If, as expected, the Supreme Court’s decision ending affirmative action in college admissions reduces education opportunities for people of color, it runs full speed into the demographic headwinds the U.S. is facing and threatens our nation’s future innovation capacity and economic competitiveness. A quick glance at basic demographic trends highlights the problem ending affirmative action in college admissions creates.

Census statistics reveal the U.S. experienced the second slowest rate of population growth in the nation’s history during the 2010s (7.4%), only slightly higher than the growth rate during Great Depression (7.3%).

In part, this slowing rate of growth was driven by another historic first in our nation: the White population declined by -5.1 million during the 2010s and by another -1.1 million during the first 15 months of the pandemic. The Supreme Court justices did not consider that the nation’s net growth has been fully driven by people of color over the past 13 years.

This emergent trend, popularly referred to as the “browning” of America, has been evident in U.S. Census data since the 1990s and will continue well into the future. With the highest median age in our history (38.8), we are an aging nation, which is largely driven by whites who by far have the highest median age (43.9) compared to African Americans (35.3) and Latinos (30.5).

Moreover, the U.S. fertility rate has been below the replacement level for the past 15 years, driven largely by a decline in childbearing among white women who are much older than women of color. At the same time, the U.S. also has experienced a sharp rise in premature deaths of despair among prime working-age white males, which has affected both the marriage rate and the fertility rate among whites.

Combined, these developments have contributed to the “browning” of the school-age population, the next generation of talent that will have to propel our nation in the hyper-competitive global economy. 

Winning the war for talent and our future prosperity in the global marketplace requires us not only to embrace but also invest – purposefully and intentionally – in our demographic diversity as a strategic imperative, in both K-12 education and college admissions, matriculation, and graduation.

Given the Supreme Court’s shortsightedness, we must move beyond race and ethnicity, the visible aspects of diversity.

We must devise strategies that leverage “iceberg” diversity in college enrollment decisions, where only 30% of an individual’s demographic identity is visible, and 70% of acquired traits and experiences are not.

Properly curated in the application process, this broadening of admissions criteria can increase the flow of diverse talent into American higher education institutions, leading, for example, to creative metrics like the “adversity index” used in the University of California, Davis medical school admissions process.  

James H. Johnson, Jr. is the William Rand Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship in UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. Allan M. Parnell is Vice President of the Cedar Grove Institute for Sustainable Communities in Mebane, North Carolina.