A Facade of Diversity
by Sammy Deol | published Nov. 1st, 2023
While the decision was expected, the Supreme Court’s 6–3 ruling to ban the use of race in college admissions enraged students and families nationwide — and understandably so. The move, along with recent rulings shooting down teachers’ unions and student debt forgiveness, represents yet another attack launched by conservatives against the little equity we have in our education system.
But, as frustrated as I am with the Supreme Court’s political antics, I believe the public needs to equally hold universities accountable for perpetuating the lack of accessibility we see in higher education.
There is no denying that Black, Hispanic, and Native Americans, among other demographics, face systemic disadvantages hindering their access to educational opportunities. Just look at the disparities in academic outcomes of children from Rochester.
According to ACT Rochester, a local initiative that collects data on social issues to inspire legislative action, 93% of white students in Monroe County graduated high school in the 2022 cohort, compared to 80% of Black and 77% of Hispanic students.
Furthermore, in 2017 the Rochester City School District (RCSD) — which is more than half Black — had the second lowest average SAT score (806) in Upstate New York. Brighton (1200) and Pittsford (1180) Central School Districts, which are both in white and wealthy Rochester suburbs, ranked the highest.
Such statistics reveal the drawback of relying mainly on affirmative action to boost diversity: the practice only puts a band-aid on a bullet wound and completely disregards the root of these performance gaps. Academic inequity starts at a young age, stemming from increased poverty among minorities, higher parental incarceration rates and less funding for elementary schools in the city. As early as fourth grade, only 4% of RCSD students were considered proficient in math during the 2020–21 academic year.
Lowering admissions standards for disadvantaged groups does not lessen the neglect these kids face in their schools. Children who grow up in the worst economic circumstances are often less likely to graduate high school and apply to college. What favors does affirmative action do for them? That is why I become frustrated when schools pretend they are havens for diversity, when their policies abandon those who need the most help.
PRETENDING TO CARE
Yet, within hours of the Supreme Court ruling, essentially every school in the country released an official — and painfully generic — statement condemning the outcome and vowing to uphold inclusivity in their admissions. RIT took a similar approach to addressing the news. In an announcement released on RIT’s Instagram page, President Munson promised that the ruling “will not affect the way we admit students at RIT” and lauded the university’s efforts to nurture a diverse student body.
“Diversity and inclusion are fundamental aspects of RIT’s identity as an institution and are intrinsically tied to its historic strength as a forward-looking university,” the statement added. The comment section harmoniously praised these words, as if they erased the societal woes and academic gatekeeping driving the issue at hand.
To extol RIT as a hallmark of racial diversity is pathetically cringeworthy. The 2022–23 Common Data Set (CDS) shows that less than 5% and 10% of undergraduate students are Black and Hispanic, respectively. These numbers are remarkably low considering that Rochester is among the most diverse cities in the country and that the university strives to pull students from the surrounding area.
To me, the steps that RIT and other schools have taken to combat racism come off as virtue signaling. From making meaningless, AI-generated social media statements that demonstrate zero accountability for their shortcomings to changing the names of decades' old buildings, all I see are excuses that exempt them from making meaningful progress. So much more needs to happen to compensate for the deficits we see, but RIT's self-stated satisfaction with the existing admissions process is concerning.
Not only does RIT fail to attract enough applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds, but the high cost of attendance is the biggest barrier for those who are accepted. As far back as 2013, the New York Times reported that the median income for RIT families was $95,900, which is more than double that of Rochester households and certainly lower than the number today.
And while the university willingly pours hundreds of millions of dollars into constructing needless buildings, its spending habits limit how much need-based financial aid students receive. Of the first year students in Fall 2022 who were determined to have financial need, only 18.4% had their need fully met according to the CDS.
Moreover, the U.S. News & World Report notes that the average RIT student earning financial aid still pays $30,765 annually. That is often more than what aid-receiving students pay at schools with similar endowments, including Davidson ($17,057), Colgate ($24,489) and the University of Tulsa ($26,781). How can RIT claim to be diverse when poorer students, predominantly those from Black and Hispanic backgrounds, are effectively blocked from receiving an education?
Still, to add insult to injury, the CDS shows that the university considers “alumni affiliation” when granting non-need-based scholarships but not “minority status.” In an age where institutions are scrambling to inflate their brand and ranking, the focus has clearly shifted toward maximizing profits in the short term. Farming donations from a select group of rich alumni is fiscally more rewarding than making academic opportunities more accessible. After all, if RIT really cared about nurturing the “Thinkers, Makers [and] Doers” of the future, then how come almost a third of its students never even graduate?
To RIT's credit, the university launched the Destler/Johnson Rochester City Scholars program in 2009, giving disadvantaged students from local charter schools a full-tuition scholarship and special mentorship. The initiative is a great start, but it needs to be expanded significantly — in terms of both accepted students and the high schools participating — to maximize its effects on the community. Only 25 students enter the program each year, which pales in comparison to the roughly 16,000 applicants RIT accepts annually.
Even with the program, the university's racial and socioeconomic demographics are incredibly embarrassing. Own up to these numbers, RIT. Let's stop throwing money away on feel-food alumni scholarships and buildings and instead expand these recruiting pipelines and make our school more affordable. Now is not the time for our usual complacency.