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Colleges should shoulder the burden of SCOTUS admissions ruling, not students, say Philly college advisers

On Friday, Penn in partnership with Heights Philadelphia, rolled out a new free course aimed at helping those who might not have a lot of outside guidance navigate the admissions process.

Malea Williams, 17, a rising senior at George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science.
Malea Williams, 17, a rising senior at George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science.Read moreTyger Williams / Staff Photographer

Malea Williams, a rising senior at a Philadelphia magnet high school, hadn’t planned on emphasizing her identity as a Black person in her college essays.

She wanted to highlight her persistence and ability to juggle more than a half-dozen extracurriculars while maintaining a 4.3 weighted GPA that puts her among the top of her class.

But now she’s rethinking that in light of this week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which bars colleges from considering race as a factor in admissions, with one exception. Colleges can look at an “applicant’s discussion of how race affected the applicant’s life, so long as that discussion is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability that the particular applicant can contribute to the university,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote in the opinion.

» READ MORE: Supreme Court ends affirmative action in college admissions. Here's what Philadelphia area colleges are saying

“Because of this ruling, I may shift and mention more of my identity,” said Williams, 17, an aspiring lawyer who attends George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science.

But she’s not really happy that she feels almost forced to do so.

“It’s not fair,” she said. “I’m not just Black. And being forced to write about your struggles ... in some cases, it could be retraumatizing someone just to be able to get across ... that I’m Black.”

The copresidents of Heights Philadelphia, an organization that helps Philadelphia school students like Williams get to and through college, said the onus of coping with the court’s opinion should not be on students. They said it’s really up to colleges to change their admissions process and ensure that Black and brown students have access to higher education.

“We want to make it clear that our job and the job of big institutions around us is to make sure that doors to college and career remain wide open in spite of the decision,” said Sara Woods, copresident of Heights. “It should not be on the backs of our students.”

Woods and Sean Vereen, Heights copresident, released a video encouraging students to keep working toward college.

“We will fight for you,” Vereen said on the video. “This is not the end.”

» READ MORE: Penn students lament SCOTUS decision on race-based admissions: ‘All of our progress is disappearing’

Both Woods and Vereen pointed out that even with race-conscious admissions, many of the nation’s elite colleges still enroll small percentages of Black and Hispanic students. At the University of Pennsylvania, 7.9% of undergraduates last academic year identified as African American or Black and 10%, Hispanic. And many of the elite colleges still give weight to children of alumni and faculty, so-called legacies, which can unfairly disadvantage students of color, and prioritize test scores and other criteria that also pose disadvantages to students of color.

“There’s a better way,” Vereen said. “The ruling is wrong. But on the other hand there is an opportunity to think differently about college admissions. And it’s a real opportunity for colleges to partner with an organization like Heights and connect with students from Philadelphia.”

On Friday, Penn in partnership with Heights, rolled out a new free course, Applying to College 101, aimed at helping students, particularly those who might not have a lot of outside guidance or support, navigate the admissions process.

“We realize that the Supreme Court’s ruling might leave students feeling confused or overwhelmed about how to prepare for college applications,” said Whitney Soule, Penn’s vice provost and dean of admissions. “We recognize the importance of this course and hope that students, regardless of where they are in their journey, find this helpful.”

The course, which is on the open Coursera platform, guides students on how to use online college search tools, select high school classes in preparation for college, think about financial aid, and how to “authentically represent themselves” on applications.

Heights Philadelphia formed a year ago, the combination of two long-standing organizations with similar missions, Philadelphia Futures and Steppingstone Scholars. The organization works with 3,500 students at 23 Philadelphia high schools and middle schools and at 50 colleges around the country. The focus is on Black and brown students and those who are the first in their families to attend college. The organization provides intensive advising, career and college events, and access to internships and post-graduate jobs.

Among the students it helps is Dock Brown Jr., 17, a rising senior at Parkway Center City Middle College, who was disappointed, but not surprised, at the court’s decision.

“For a minute we were finally getting recognition and equality and it seems like they just took it away,” said Brown, who also hopes to become a lawyer.

The lawsuits that led to the court’s decision contended that admissions processes at Harvard and the University of North Carolina discriminated against Asian and white applicants. If the court’s decision is reversed one day, then Asian students again would feel disadvantaged, Brown said. So he said he’d rather not focus on that.

“Someone is going to have to be the bigger person, and even though historically, we have been the bigger person, I think we should try to seek compassion and empathy and try to stop being so hard on each other,” said Brown, who lives in Germantown. “If we have to be the bigger person again, then I’m comfortable with that.”

At Parkway, he’s scheduled to graduate with not only his high school diploma, but also an associate’s degree in liberal arts from Community College of Philadelphia — it will be the first college degree in his immediate family. He’s also captain of the basketball team and serves on student council. This year, he plans to run for council president.

He would like to attend Howard, a historically Black school, but also has his eye on Cheyney and Norfolk State University, also HBCUs. It’s unclear if the Supreme Court ruling will affect his chances; there’s a question of whether HBCUs will see a spike in applications, given the ruling.

For Williams, the ruling could have more of an effect. College officials worry that it will lead to fewer Black and brown students at the nation’s most competitive colleges, given what happened at colleges in states that have banned race-based admissions.

A first-generation college student, she would most like to attend Brown University, an Ivy. She’s also got her eye on Columbia, another Ivy, and Boston University. She plans to major in political science and take minors in Africana studies and American Sign Language.

In high school, she belongs to her student council, Black Student Union, and drama club, participates on the Ethics Bowl team, which won first place in the Philadelphia regional competition this year, plays volleyball and is on the indoor and outdoor track teams.

She wants to become a lawyer so she can help others find their voice.

“When I was younger, I didn’t really have a voice,” she said, recalling getting bullied in school. “As I got older, I found my voice and was able to defend myself. I want to do the same for people, defend them, help them find their voice.”