The door to higher education for African Americans and other students of color is closing, and so will America's long-term economic future. Despite the clear decision by the U.S Supreme Court in the University of Michigan case upholding the principle of affirmative action, some of America's leading colleges and universities are already opening their purse strings to White students using minority scholarship dollars.
According to a report by The New York Times,pressure from Washington, D.C., and fear of litigation is forcing several colleges and universities to allow White students to apply for hundreds of thousands of dollars in fellowships, scholarships and other programs previously targeted for minority students.
In January at the State University of New York, White students became eligible for $6.8 million in aid from two minority scholarship programs. On the opposite coast, California's Pepperdine University is negotiating with the U.S. Department of Education over its use of race as a criterion in its scholarship programs.
Southern Illinois University has reached a consent decree with the Justice Department to allow nonminorities and men access to graduate fellowships originally created for minorities and women. It is unclear how many institutions across the nation are modifying their policies.
Travis Reindl, director of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, believes hundreds, if not thousands of scholarship and fellowship programs use race as a criterion, and as many as 50 percent of the four-year colleges in the United States have reviewed or modified such programs.
The chilling effect of a new, more decidedly conservative U.S. Supreme Court is readily apparent. Some university and college officials admit that although the University of Michigan case allowed the use of race as one of several criteria for college admissions, the recent confirmations of Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito are likely to lead to a challenge of that decision.
Opponents of minority scholarships claim that policy changes are good because they will eliminate race as a factor in decision-making in higher education.
"Our concern is that the law be followed and nobody be denied participation in a program on account of skin color or what country their ancestors came from," said Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity.
Let's be very clear. Any effort to reduce the number of minority students financially able to go to undergraduate or graduate school will be devastating and have a far-reaching, negative effect on America as an economic powerhouse. Why? The National Urban League's 2005 State of Black America report revealed that financial access was the greatest impediment to higher education attainment by African Americans, and for every 10 Whites that earn a college diploma, only 6.3 African Americans do so.
Studies also show that a person with a four-year degree earns four times more income than individuals without a degree. The overall economic status of Blacks is just 57 percent that of Whites, according to the league's report. This disparity exists due to factors such as income, employment, home and business ownership — all of which are impacted by one's level of education.
As America's population becomes more diverse — by 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 50 percent of all American children will be children of color — one must ask if fewer minorities are able to attain a higher education, what will be the economic capabilities of America's future earners? Who will become the engineers, doctors, lawyers and others able to consume America's own goods and services and compete in our global economy?
Minority scholarship and fellowship programs that give minorities access to higher education exist not only to right the moral wrongs of America's segregated past, they are in America's best economic interests.
Marc H. Morial is president of the National Urban League.