"Just Trying to Fight for Yourself": What We Still Need to Know about Affirmative Action Bans' Impact on Student Well-Being

Blog Post
One college student stands leaning against a wall holding a book while other students pass in front of her
Oct. 4, 2023

In a recent New America interview with student leaders of the University of North Carolina (UNC) Affirmative Action Coalition, Adela Zhang described the experience of being a student of color on campus as “it almost feels like you’re just trying to fight for yourself.” Students also discussed questioning their belonging and not having mentors who look like them. These experiences are becoming more pronounced in the face of countless attacks on colleges and universities’ diversity efforts, the latest being a Supreme Court ruling striking down the consideration of race in admissions decisions. Now, for Adela and many students like her, the fight for representation and belonging likely becomes even more dire.

Critics of the Supreme Court decision have argued that when selective colleges stop considering race in their admissions decisions, enrollment of underrepresented minority (URM; e.g., Black, Latinx, and Native American) students declines. Extensive prior research overwhelmingly points to reduced enrollment of Black and Latinx students in states following bans on considering race in admissions to selective colleges and universities. Moreover, race-blind approaches, like considering socioeconomic status but not race, have not yielded the same levels of URM enrollment as before state bans on consideration of race.

But what is missing from this research, and thus the broader discussion, is how affirmative action bans impact URM students on a psychosocial level. That is, how will the ruling affect the mental health and general wellbeing of current and prospective URM students? How will this Supreme Court decision impact their experience of applying to and enrolling in higher education? Though research on students’ social and emotional experiences of bans on race-conscious admissions is scarce, past psychological research allows us to draw some plausible hypotheses.

For one thing, the decision likely reflects a certain viewpoint on race held by a considerable part of the general public or by institutions of higher education. Decades of psychology research have shown that institutional signals communicating an unwelcoming or non-affirming environment toward people with minoritized identities can have severe consequences on their success and wellbeing, from social concerns to impaired performance. Researchers found, for example, that undergraduate women of color who read a university diversity statement that called race, ethnicity, and gender “immaterial” on campus both expected to and actually did perform worse on a math test compared to peers who read a diversity statement that affirmed the importance of race and gender. If those in power believe that considering race in admissions is unnecessary, it could be viewed as an implicit belief that race is no longer a social structure that produces social and economic inequity. Moreover, this viewpoint might suggest that the unique systemic barriers that Black, Latinx, and other students and communities of color face are now gone. If this is how URM students interpret the Supreme Court decision and its supporters, they might internalize the message that race is viewed as irrelevant by those in power. This is a cause for concern both for their psychosocial well-being and for their prospects for success in higher education.

Psychological research suggesting that policy-level signals may detrimentally impact URM individuals psychosocially has been borne out by the few studies on the outcomes of affirmative action bans beyond enrollment. In California, where race-based affirmative action was banned in 1996, Black and Latinx students reported feeling that students of their own race received less respect compared to students at similar schools in states with affirmative action. In another study, students in states with affirmative action bans reported experiencing overt racism on campus at nearly twice the rate as students in states without a ban (43.4 percent vs. 20.9 percent).

Even prospective URM students are likely picking up on what the SCOTUS decision signals. For example, they may anticipate a drop in students like them on campus, which could inhibit feelings of trust in and belonging within higher education. In turn, these negative perceptions can lead to stereotype threat, where fears about upholding negative stereotypes can harm underrepresented individuals’ performance on relevant tasks, such as exams. Thus, concerns about declining URM-student enrollment because of the affirmative action ban may translate into deeper fears of tokenism and stigmatization.

In light of the recent SCOTUS decision, institutions must keep in mind that the decision applies only to admissions. Colleges invested in racial diversity within their student body can make a concerted effort to recruit URM students in other ways. For instance, following a statewide ban on affirmative action in 1999, the University of Washington initially saw a decline in URM applications and enrollment. However, these rates rebounded within a few years, likely due to the university’s persistent outreach efforts to high schools and community groups with high concentrations of URM students. Moreover, if colleges are committed to the psychosocial wellbeing of their URM students, they must bolster their support for social programming, affinity groups, and mental-health resources specifically tailored to URM students.

Ultimately, existing evidence points to the high probability of URM enrollment in higher education declining after the SCOTUS decision–at least initially–especially at the nation’s more selective institutions. More research will be needed to understand how URM students who do decide to enroll in college are faring on a social and emotional level in a higher education environment hampered by new limitations on how race can be considered in admissions. Now more than ever, researchers and education administrators alike must be carefully tracking the social, emotional, and physical wellbeing of our nation’s URM students. In particular, data is needed on how the SCOTUS decision impacts college students’ sense of belonging in and identification with higher education, as well as high school students’ postsecondary plans. Additionally, new research should examine how URM students respond to the various approaches for promoting diversity taken–or not–by universities after this decision.

As Adela Zhang noted in our interview, “for a lot of minority students, they feel like they’re constantly laboring to represent themselves.” We will need solid research to understand not only how that labor looks, but also what impacts it has on the students who have to engage in it.

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