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April 2, 2015

College access declining for students of color, CRSP lecturer maintains

Gary Orfield

Gary Orfield

When Gary Orfield was a student at Harvard, his professor, John Hope Franklin — whom Orfield terms the greatest black historian in the 20th century — taught him that “the [civil] rights that were won in the Civil War were interpreted away to nothing by the Supreme Court.”

Today, Orfield — distinguished research professor of education, law, political science and urban planning, as well as co-director of The Civil Rights Project at the University of California-Los Angeles — believes that “we are in the second post-Reconstruction. We are in the middle of rolling back a lot of the things that were won at Selma and elsewhere.”

Orfield spoke March 17 on “The Crisis of College Access for Students of Color” at the latest Reed Smith lecture from the School of Social Work’s Center on Race and Social Problems.

“We have a history of de jure segregation [in high schools] and a history of exclusion in most of our private higher education systems,” he said. He termed college access part of a more general set of troubling civil rights declines stemming from court decisions, “including voting rights and the massive resegregation of schools all throughout the country.

“We’re in a period of declining opportunity and increasing inequality not just by race but by social class,” he added, referring to the income gap between the rich and “the rest of us.”

Since the early 1990s, for instance, segregation in high schools has been on the rise again. (Locally, the last court-ordered desegregation case, which created the Woodland Hills School District from the mostly white Churchill Area School District and surrounding majority-black districts, had only been accomplished a decade earlier.)

Today’s segregation by race and social class “intensifies already existing inequalities,” he said. Increasingly, students also are being segregated by a third factor, native language, which is placing more of the country’s Latino populations in their own schools. The result, Orfield said, is an unequal education system as measured by graduation rates and other outcomes.

As recently as 2007, the Supreme Court in Parents Involved v. Seattle Schools and Meredith v. Jefferson County struck down Louisville, Kentucky and Seattle, Washington, programs that held seats for minority students to integrate public elementary and secondary schools. Orfield was involved in preparing the Louisville case argument. There, the city’s mayor testified that their program worked: They hadn’t seen segregated schools in 40 years. A Chamber of Commerce representative said the result of Louisville’s program was a school system that produced graduates who could be hired by any local industry.

Louisville lost the case. “We’re not even trying anymore” to desegregate the country, Orfield said.


Today, college attendance is essential for anyone to succeed in the U.S. economy, he noted.

Following World War II, the U.S. led the world in providing college access to its young citizens, he said. Nineteen states created separate colleges for black students; at the time, Pennsylvania and Ohio were the only two among those 19 already permitting black students to enroll in existing colleges. Affirmative action victories were being won in legislation and the courts.

While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 said publicly funded institutions would lose federal dollars if they discriminated against minorities, there was little enforcement until Jimmy Carter’s presidential administration. The law “was pretty well trashed by the Reagan administration,” Orfield said.

The most favorable conditions for diverse college attendance came in the late 1960s-early 1970s, he said, when relatively low tuition costs were coupled with expanding family incomes. In 1965 the federal college financial-aid system was created, beginning with the Pell grants. In addition, programs such as Upward Bound were instituted to help prepare disadvantaged students for college, although “they reached at their peak a tenth of the students that could have been reached.”

Still, in 1976, blacks, Latinos and whites had an equal chance of heading to college if they finished high school. This was the last time such an equal opportunity existed in America, Orfield said. By the end of President Reagan’s second term in 1988, the Supreme Court would have an anti-civil-rights majority.

However, the erosion of integration as a governing principle in the country’s courts had begun a decade earlier, with the Supreme Court’s Regents of the University of California v. Bakke decision in 1978. Allan Bakke, a white man, was refused admission to the UC-Davis medical school and claimed the school’s affirmative action program unfairly discriminated against him. Siding with Bakke, the ruling — written by Justice Lewis Powell, who had cast the deciding vote — still allowed affirmative action, but only if the resulting diversity benefited all students.

When the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in Hopwood v. Texas in 1996 that race could no longer be a college admissions decision factor, Orfield decided to help found The Civil Rights Center. Its first goal was to conduct research to prove that Powell’s stricture had a basis in fact. Orfield said the center has since discovered that the majority of students in more diverse classrooms say they think and learn in classrooms in ways not possible before — and found that “more subtlety of thought and reason” is displayed by students in integrated classrooms.

There have been some bright spots in Supreme Court decisions, but they have been temporary, Orfield maintained. In two cases against the University of Michigan in 2003, one (Gratz v. Bollinger) saw the court say that weighting of race could not occur in undergraduate admissions. But the other (Grutter v. Bollinger) found that race could be considered in a more individual way during the law school admissions process.

The Grutter decision, written by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, “turned out to be better than any of us had expected,” Orfield said. In her brief, O’Connor suggested that her ruling might well be revisited in 25 years.

But O’Connor resigned that year, replaced by the very conservative Samuel Alito, and Orfield expects negative affirmative action case rulings much sooner than that. Such cases still are working their way through various levels of the courts. Conservative groups currently are trying to get a Texas policy, which allows students who graduate in the top 10 percent in any of the state’s high schools to be admitted to the University of Texas-Austin, to be the law of the land. This policy somewhat increased diversity in Texas colleges, which had declined since the Hopwood decision. But Orfield cautioned that such a plan doesn’t work in states where there are too many more-exclusive private colleges or where competition for state colleges is “so hysterical you have to have an A+ average” to gain admission.

Orfield’s center subsidized research on the effect of the Texas policy, showing for instance that the state’s program helped mostly Latinos, not blacks, and submitted a widely endorsed brief. “It got zero attention from the Supreme Court,” he said. “The Supreme Court in their decision ducked the issue,” remanding it back to a lower court, where it is on appeal.


Today, our lower ranking among world nations for college access stems from the fact that “we are not educating the non-white population in the United States, at least the non-Asian, non-white population,” Orfield concluded.

“We need a critical mass” of diverse groups in classes, he contended. As a witness in the Grutter case, Orfield was asked by the court what percentage of minorities was best in a classroom today. “I knew if I told them a number they would say it was a quota,” he recalled. But there is no magic number, he insisted: “It’s contextual, it depends on the population of the state … and it would be better if the courts left it up to the institutions.

“Those are researchable questions,” he added. “They haven’t been well-researched yet.” The country has had very little money to research anything to do with race in education since Reagan took office. “The fact that we don’t have a lot of knowledge about these issues is intentional.

“Where are we now?” he said. “We have a civil rights problem. And we have a very real financial problem,” given that there has been a 400 percent rise in the cost of college since the 1960s after inflation is accounted for. “How are you going to pay for college when income for middle-class families in real terms hasn’t gone up in a generation?”

In addition, he said, “we have very radical defunding in many of our public institutions to the extent that they are really becoming semi-public. We don’t have a coherent policy of funding higher education in this country.”

Orfield labels President Barack Obama’s call for free community colleges as simply “rhetoric. It’s not going to happen,” since no legislation is likely to pass, or funding found, to create such an opportunity. Orfield also decried Obama’s talk of bringing a No Child Left Behind-like assessment to colleges, vetting them on graduation rates, employment of graduates and repayment of student loans, with no thought as to how that might hurt historically black colleges and open-enrollment institutions that provide education but may have lower rates on all those markers.

“Should we blame colleges for that?” he said. “That what’s we did to high schools … we could end up punishing the colleges that serve minorities and disadvantaged students.”

In the end, Orfield called for greater state funding of higher education and raising the level of Pell grants to support the actual cost of a four-year college education. He also called for new lawsuits against universities adopting “negative racial policies.”

“The path that we’re on is not viable for a healthy country,” he said. “We’re at the stage for the first time in the history [to see] an actual decline of education level of our population.”

—Marty Levine