Today, the Supreme Court upheld an amendment to Michigan’s constitution that bans affirmative action in admissions to public universities. Now that states can decide for themselves whether to ban the use of race as a factor in admission to public institutions of higher education, it is crucial that proponents of affirmative action make a strong case as to why it is still necessary.
Affirmative action in higher education has long been controversial both in the courts and public opinion. On the one hand, universities and colleges across the country maintain that diversity is an important factor in attaining educational goals. On the other hand, the concept of a color-blind constitution advances our long-held tradition of meritocracy.
But today’s 21st century economic and social realities make the case, now more than ever, that affirmative action programs still have a crucial role to play in the American higher education system.
America is experiencing the greatest demographic shift in our nation’s history. Minorities made up 50.4 percent of U.S. births in the 12-month period ending July 2011. As a result, by 2028—the year in which these children will reach college age—over half of all children will be Black, Hispanic, American Indian, Native Hawaiian, or multiracial.
That means that the majority of the next generation of our work force will be racial or ethnic minorities.
If America is going to continue to compete in the global marketplace, it is crucial that this next generation of workers be educated.
Data collected from 1990 to 2009 suggests that affirmative action programs have led to universal rates of improvement in enrollment in higher education; however the rates among whites, African Americans, and Hispanics have been uneven.
The college enrollment rate for whites has risen from 32 percent in 1990 to 46 percent in 2009. African Americans made smaller gains, from 23 percent to 35 percent. The rate for Hispanics has greatly risen from 16 percent to 29 percent, although Hispanics still lag behind African Americans and Whites.
But with people of color making up the majority of the next generation of workers, we have work to do to maintain America’s competitive edge. We cannot afford to have an under-educated workforce at a time when our international competitors are catching up with us.
Not surprisingly, the business community agrees.
According to a Forbes survey of 321 executives at enterprises with $500 million-plus in annual revenues, 85% of the executives who responded agreed that “a diverse and inclusive workforce is necessary to drive innovation and promote creativity.”
In a brief written to the Supreme Court on behalf of 65 Fortune 500 companies including Coca-Cola, General Electric, and Intel, the companies agreed that “today’s global marketplace and the increasing diversity in the American population demand the cross-cultural experience and understanding” gained from and educational environment where undergraduates “are exposed to diverse people, ideas, perspectives and interactions.”
From a business perspective, affirmative action isn’t about righting societal wrongs or giving people a fair chance—it’s about increasing profits and being able to innovate in a changing global economy.
But affirmative action in higher education also has advantages for the students themselves. In fact, scientific studies show that diversity in higher education leads to increased educational benefits across all races.
For example, in a study analyzing data recorded over a four year period from nearly 20,000 students of varying racial and ethnic backgrounds at 227 institutions, scientists found that students who engaged in high levels of cross-racial interaction in college reported significantly larger gains than their counterparts in their critical thinking skills, problem solving skills, general knowledge, and intellectual and social self-confidence.
In the coming years, our nation will be in the middle of the most drastic demographic change that we have ever faced. At the same time, ever-increasing globalization and industrialization will continue to morph the 21st century economy.
We can meet this challenge. An emphasis on greater diversity in higher education will result in a larger participation rate by America’s next generation of workers, will benefit the educational experience of all races, and will fuel a business climate of innovation, connection, and creativity.