To a group calling itself Students for Fair Admissions, the case for racism in access to the University of North Carolina was open and shut. The group, run by a 60-something veteran right-wing activist famous for filing the lawsuit that gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, and with nary an actual student in sight, claimed in a federal lawsuit that its statistical analysis showed the deck was stacked against whites applying to the Tar Heel State’s flagship public university.

The bitter irony is that UNC is hardly some kind of academic Wakanda. To the contrary, the current admissions process at the nation’s oldest public university — in which the applicant’s race is just one of a number of factors — had yielded a 2019 freshman class that was only 8.9% Black, even though census data showed African Americans comprised more than 22% of state’s population. More broadly, North Carolina is one of a number of states where Black access to college campuses notably declined during the 2010s.

Black students and faculty say the numbers don’t even tell the whole story of racial backsliding at a university that was integrated only by a 1955 federal court order. In ruling against the anti-affirmative action plaintiffs, U.S. District Court Judge Loretta C. Biggs wrote in October that “nearly 70 years after the first Black students were admitted to UNC, the minority students at the university still report being confronted with racial epithets, as well as feeling isolated, ostracized, stereotyped and viewed as tokens.”

Despite all of that, the notion that admission to the University of North Carolina is instead biased against whites is headed for a major showdown starting this fall at the U.S. Supreme Court. Many watchers of the High Court believe that in agreeing to hear the UNC case — and a similar lawsuit by Students for Fair Admission against Harvard, which also says factoring race in admissions harms Asian-Americans — a Donald Trump-boosted 6-3 conservative majority is eager to finally end more than 50 years of race as a factor in U.S. college admissions.

But the headlines over the SCOTUS move hide a much more important story. The goal of higher education as a way to boost young Black people toward the American Dream — briefly a real success story in the 1970s, at the dawn of the effort — has been slowly slipping away for decades. The 2010s in particular saw alarming drops in African-American enrollment, especially at flagship public universities where equity is supposed to be baked into the mission statement.

“The truth is the numbers make painstakingly clear that even with affirmative action or race-conscious admission being allowable in many states, it still hasn’t produced for us tremendous access for Black or Latinx students,” Shaun Harper, a professor at the University of Southern California and founder of its Race and Equity Center (and formerly of the University of Pennsylvania) told me. In California, Harper noted, the big problem since state voters banned affirmative action in 1996 had been a reliance on SAT scores, and making those tests optional the last couple of years has brought a positive bump in nonwhite enrollment. “I’m not so sure affirmative action is the only policy lever for highly selective institutions.”

While lawyers have been squabbling for nearly a half-century over the meaning of “affirmative action,” real-world problems like declining taxpayer aid for colleges and soaring tuition, a student-loan racket that slams Black and brown families, and administrators trying to make it all work by luring richer white kids are making a mockery of the stated goal of a college campus that looks like America.

Just last month, The Inquirer reported that Black enrollment at Philadelphia’s state-supported Temple University — as a high as 28.4% in the late 1990s, in a stunning fulfillment of school founder Russell Conwell’s pledge to mine “acres of diamonds” in the city — had slipped sharply to just 12.6% by 2016-17, amid steeply rising tuition, a focus on “competitiveness” by going after kids with higher scores on the arguably biased SATs, and a lack of outreach. But Temple is really just an extreme example of a disturbing national trend.

Although surveys vary slightly, most analyses show that Black enrollment in higher ed began to dip around 2010-2012. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, 63% of recent Black high school grads enrolled in college at the start of the decade, yet by 2017 that had slid to just 58% — and that was before the 2020 pandemic which has caused the biggest across-the-board plunge in university attendance since World War II.

The debate over affirmative action — giving admissions preference around race, ethnicity or gender to make up for a long history of discrimination — has long loomed over Black educational attainment while not fully defining the real struggle. The earliest iterations of college affirmative action were a remarkable success story — “Black College Enrollment Has Doubled Since 1970,” a New York Times headline blared in 1981 — but things grew murkier after the Supreme Count, in its high-profile 1978 Bakke ruling, said race could still be an admissions factor yet struck down using specific quotas.

More recently, enrollment among African Americans has been affected by the whims of an increasingly privatized system in which taxpayer support for public institutions plummeted. One reason for higher rates of enrollment around 2010 was the rise of for-profit universities that came with huge debt loads and failed career promises. A federal crackdown beginning around 2013 closed some of the worst offenders, which drove down enrollment. So did young people spurning community college as those schools grew more expensive.

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But the problems at large public flagship schools like Temple or UNC are signs of a much more endemic failure — showing how colleges and their leaders dropped the ball on equity even as the Supreme Court continued to rule that race could be used as an admissions factor. A 2019 survey by the Washington Post and the Hechinger Report found at least 15 states where the gap between Blacks graduating high school and their enrollment in public universities was more than 10%. In the most egregious example, African Americans comprised just 10% of students at the University of Mississippi, yet were 49% of state high school grads.

Many of these prestigious schools were preoccupied during the 2010s with balancing their increasingly off-kilter budgets with students from out-of-state or from foreign countries such as China who paid higher tuition. They also tried to make themselves more attractive by raising minimum SAT score requirements, even as the test benefitted wealthier families who paid for pricey prep courses. In a nation where the Black-white wealth ratio is 20-1, recruiting Black kids was a low priority. These self-inflicted wounds had little to do with the legal status of affirmative action.

Indeed, some schools — including Temple — have focused in recent years on doing some of the small but necessary things that could at least bring African American enrollment back toward prior levels. These include recruiting top kids from urban or rural schools that have been too long ignored, mentoring programs, workshops or summer programs aimed at increasing college awareness or helping with applications. Even something as simple as North Carolina State University sending text messages to kids in underprivileged counties has been shown to help.

“Laziness is another explanatory factor here,” added USC’s Harper, noting that when he visits colleges and universities he’ll often find Black and brown students from the same clusters of high schools, while other potential feeder schools are ignored.

Now, the looming Supreme Court deliberations on affirmative action will soak up a lot of the oxygen around the debate on college access. That’s understandable at such a fraught moment for broader race relations in America, when Republican senators blast President Joe Biden’s plan for a Black woman on the Supreme Court as “affirmative action” or when the NFL’s lack of African American coaches becomes a national scandal. But when it comes to college access, the real issue may prove less what the High Court decides about Harvard and UNC and more about what those schools decide to do about making the dream of a diploma accessible to everyone.

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