Notwithstanding the US Supreme Court’s anticipated decision barring the use of race as a factor in university admissions at highly selective universities, an alternative form of affirmative action—also dating back to the 1960s and born out of the campus protests of that time—continues to enable thousands of Black and Latino high school graduates around the country to gain access to state colleges every year. But the ability of this parallel effort—described as “community-centered” affirmative action—to provide true social mobility is threatened by waning financial support and rising admissions requirements for particular degree programs, among other challenges, explains Domingo Morel, a professor at NYU’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service with a joint appointment in the Wilf Department of Politics.

In  Developing Scholars: Race, Politics, and the Pursuit of Higher Education, Morel presents a case study of the University of Rhode Island Talent Development Program, from which he himself benefited. Born from community and campus protest in the 1960s, the program now admits 500 students a year, using somewhat-relaxed admissions standards coupled with academic advisement and special supports to assist graduates from struggling public schools and distressed urban neighborhoods. It is one of many of its kind at state colleges across the country.

leafy campus shot showing The University of Rhode Island's Green Hall

The University of Rhode Island's Green Hall

Morel’s analysis of national data on enrollment of Blacks and Latinos and grade point average standards for admittance to state colleges, reveals that as more minority students were admitted through this type of affirmative action from 1968 to 2018, requirements to enter degree programs and majors became more competitive, complicating the pursuit of a professional career.

The author graduated from the University of Rhode Island in 1998, and was the first member of his family to attend college.  He went on to work for the university in student advisement and recruitment, with a focus on low-income communities, and then pursued a PhD in political science, which he received from Brown; he is also the author of a 2018 book exploring the impact of state takeovers of local school districts composed predominantly of disadvantaged students of color.

Morel spoke with NYU News about his research in advance of the Supreme Court ruling.

How does community-centered affirmative action differ from the form of affirmative action the high court may strike down?

Both emerged at the same time. But the form of affirmative action with which most people are familiar was designed for high-achieving students of color to attend elite institutions of higher education, like Harvard.

headshot of Domingo Morel

Domingo Morel

What community and campus activists in the 1960s also fought for was another approach, which addressed the failure of state institutions of higher education to accept students of color, particularly Black students. These activists viewed state colleges as public institutions with a responsibility to open their doors to the people who live in the community and the state. Many of the students at the center of this activism did not meet the traditional admissions requirements— not only SAT scores but also GPA requirements. What the community activists were saying was: listen, any failure on the part of the students to meet admissions requirements is not because of the students’ ability but because of a broader educational system that has essentially produced this failure. So they promoted the idea of supporting students, developing students, and providing the financial aid, admissions, and advisement they need to grow as students. That is still an affirmative action program, but it is very different from the one most people have come to know.

Why was protest so important to the formation of these programs?

In my work I show that campus protests and the urban rebellions of the late 1960s were critical to overcoming the strong resistance that community activists had encountered for many years in fighting for greater college access for students of color. By the time that uprisings were occurring on the streets of hundreds of American cities, the activists were also trying to convince administrators and policy makers that unless an opportunity was opened up for students of color in these communities, urban protests would persist if not worsen. Activists used the urban upheavals and the threat of future ones to convince state policy makers and college administrators to really open doors.

Was a climate of protest needed to keep those doors open?

After a certain amount of time, when the threat of protests started to go down, support for these programs started to go down as well, with withdrawal of financial and academic support. I show through the case study of the Talent Development program at the University of Rhode Island that student mobilization, protest, and takeover of buildings provided the condition for these programs to continue. While that was happening the administrators and others involved could not let these programs fall by the wayside. Protests actually never went away there. At any point where there was a threat to the program, there was the emergence of a protest or the threat of one.

Yet federal and state support for public higher education has declined at the same time.

It has. The Pell Grant in particular, a big factor for any low-income student, has not kept up with the rise in tuition. At the state level, we see that legislatures are not supporting public institutions of higher education the way that we saw 30 or 40 years ago. The lack of resources means that the colleges rely more on out-of-state students to pay the tuition, and talent-development programs get cut because the overall resources are not there the way they used to be. And these programs admittedly can be costly. The students get financial aid, they go to summer programs with a residential component connected to them, and advisement is also provided, so there is pressure to cut them back as budgets for universities get cut.

Your data analysis shows that students who gain access to a state college under these programs often face a hidden barrier.

State colleges and universities have become more competitive over time, with more students vying for admission. But even with that increased level of competition for access, the biggest barrier for these students turns out to be more recent forms of restriction that people often don’t know about. So you might get accepted into the university, but you don’t get accepted into a particular major or degree program, for which you now need a higher GPA. That often puts majors in business, education, engineering, or nursing just out of reach, along with the path to a professional career that can allow the beneficiaries of community-centered affirmative action to complete the transition out of poverty. And the factor that is most strongly associated with the increasing requirements is essentially race. That is, as the number of Black or Latino students on a campus grows, the likelihood of a university increasing the GPA requirements to qualify for majors and programs also increases.

Are there signs of activism to counter this?

Not yet. Because people often think that once you’re accepted into the university then you’re accepted into degree programs and majors. As a result, there is little mobilization, if any, or public outcry over these other barriers that exist.

Your finding about mid-college barriers to advancement seems to suggest that access to college is not, by itself, a remedy for economic inequality.

The common wisdom is that if we’re able to get students to go to college, then that will increase the likelihood of them having higher wages and better outcomes, and will decrease inequality. But what I’m showing in this book is that it is more complicated than that.  Because we have these hidden forms of restrictions, the opportunity to become an engineer, an educator, a pharmacist, an applied psychologist or a nurse—jobs that help people move into the middle class—in many ways remains inaccessible to students who come from low-income households, are the first generation in their family to go to college, or are students of color. Simply going to college is not enough. There are other aspects to going to college, including access to majors, that we need to be discussing as well.

What impact will the Supreme Court decision have on the affirmative action you personally benefited from and studied?

While the elite-based affirmative action was fought over in the courts, the lesson from the development of the community-based affirmative action is that it has to be fought over at the campuses and on the streets—and the ruling, I believe, may serve as a mobilization mechanism, whether at elite or less-selective public institutions. While racism is not going away, people will continue to struggle and mobilize for greater college access.