The typical battle lines have been drawn in response to last week’s Supreme Court decision in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action.
For those who believe that the court ruled against efforts to increase diversity at the University of Michigan and other public universities across the state, a closer look at the plurality opinion authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy is required. He wrote, “This case is not about the constitutionality, or the merits, of race conscious admissions policies in higher education.”
The court did not dispute that diversity is a valuable goal, nor suggest that the pursuit of more effective pathways to increasing minority enrollment was either illegal or an unworthy mission.
Missing from the discussion is a thorough analysis of the path forward as state colleges work to address continuing declines in minority enrollment.
As an African-American U-M undergrad alum, affirmative action graduate of the Law School, past president of the Alumni Association and, currently, an adjunct professor of law at U-M, I have been uniquely situated to observe and experience the benefits of diversity in higher education.
I have seen that a critical mass of students of color adds tremendous value to the educational experience of all students. Underserved urban communities also benefit greatly from diversity in higher ed as many graduates of color return to provide valuable skills to the residents of these communities.
The need to create effective pathways for students of all backgrounds into higher education is real. Only 8.7 percent of all undergraduate students at Michigan are African-American, Hispanic or Native American. African-Americans account for barely 4 percent of this year’s freshman class. To put that figure in context, African-American enrollment was more than twice as high in 1995 as it is today.
Over the last 20 years, the percentage of African-Americans at U-M has declined to nearly the same level as when I was an undergraduate at Michigan in 1969, when it stood at 3.8 percent. This figure, along with the court’s decision upholding the constitutionality of Proposition 2, must serve as a call to action to redouble our efforts and rethink how we address this monumental challenge.
One solution lies in the efforts of alumni to get directly involved in programs that have a proven track record of increasing minority enrollment.
The LEAD (Leadership, Excellence, Achievement, Diversity) Scholarship, established by the Alumni Association of the University of Michigan after passage of Proposition 2 in 2006, is one critical but underutilized tool.
LEAD is a four-year renewable merit scholarship established by the Alumni Association to encourage exceptional African-American, Hispanic, and Native American students to enroll at Michigan. The scholarship is offered to admitted students with awards from $2,500-$10,000 annually.
Since the Alumni Association started LEAD in 2007, it has provided 177 scholarships to underrepresented students who are currently on campus or have graduated.
To date, two cohorts of LEAD Scholars have completed four years of undergrad at U-M, with a 100 percent graduation rate.
While this program has experienced tremendous success in attracting minority students and providing an environment that allows students to thrive, it could accomplish much more with greater support from alumni who understand the value diversity brings to the student experience.
In 2013 students who received the scholarship were nearly twice as likely to enroll at Michigan than those who applied and met the criteria but were not awarded a scholarship due to limited funds. Programs like LEAD require support now more than ever.
Saul Green is a former deputy mayor of Detroit and a University of Michigan alum.