Could a new U.S. Supreme Court ruling spell the end of press release DEI?

The SCOTUS ruling on race-conscious admissions is certain to have ripple effects well beyond selective admissions—reaching across higher ed and corporate America.

For the world beyond selective colleges, last week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling on race-conscious admissions has little immediate legal impact. But the ripple effects are sure to be widely felt—across higher education and corporate America, and especially by those working on economic mobility and workforce diversity.

Champions of equity in education and work are deeply concerned about the message the ruling sends to everyday Americans and the chilling effect it might have on corporate diversity initiatives. But some also see good that could come, perhaps in forcing companies to focus more on the millions of students in non-selective higher education.

The basics: In a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court ruled that the consideration of race in admissions is unconstitutional, reversing previous court rulings and long-standing policy in higher education. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, provided a carve-out for colleges to consider how racial discrimination has impacted a student, as demonstrated through their college essay or the like.

It remains to be seen how the 200 or so highly selective colleges and universities that considered race in admissions will adapt, with mixed precedents from states like Florida, California, and Texas, which already banned the practice. But the general expert consensus is that we can expect the nation’s most selective institutions to become less diverse, at least in the short run.

Those institutions serve a small slice of students—graduating just 10,000 to 15,000 each year who might not have been accepted without race-conscious admissions, according to a rough estimate Sean Reardon, a sociologist at Stanford University, gave to the The New York Times. But they have an outsized role in the American psyche and in corporate recruiting.

That presents a major challenge for companies or entire industries, like tech, that are looking to diversify and tend to recruit heavily from top 100 or even top 20 institutions.

“The concern for us is that the pipeline of talent will become less diverse and that will really affect us as an industry,” says Michael Schutzler, CEO of the Washington Technology Industry Association.

Chilling effect: A whole host of research supports the business case for diversity, he says. That’s why 82 corporations and business groups signed onto amicus briefs supporting race-conscious admissions.

And while the ruling doesn’t directly impact recruitment and hiring practices, many experts worry it may discourage companies from pursuing new diversity initiatives or lead them to roll back existing ones out of fear of further lawsuits. Investments in DEI made in the wake of George Floyd’s murder already were waning.

Both the The New York Times and the The Wall Street Journal have reported heavily on the potential chilling effect. And we heard similar concerns from a number of training and social capital organizations that serve as intermediaries between higher education and companies.

For intermediary groups focused on increasing economic mobility for Black, Latino, and other underrepresented students, the concerns are twofold: that the fear of increased litigation will scare off companies, and that it will give cover to ones that weren’t bought in on diversity and equity initiatives in the first place.

“For companies that didn’t really care about this, this is a signal that they don’t have to focus on diversity,” Schutzler says. “For companies that are serious, they’re going to be nervous.”

Businesses have already been dragged into the culture wars, with companies like Target, Bud Light, and Chick-fil-A facing online backlash and boycotts for their DEI policies. Perhaps most famously, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida has been aggressively targeting Disney in an effort to force the company to back off diversity efforts, particularly around LGBTQ+ representation and transgender rights. And the state recently adopted legislation to limit diversity training in the workplace.

New talent pools: All that said, Schutzler expects that many of the companies in his industry association will double down on their diversity and equity efforts because they see it as a strategic business imperative. In an op-ed this week for Work Shift, Cat Ward and Michael Collins, both vice presidents at Jobs for the Future, argue that this is a wake-up call for corporate America to get even more serious.

“Rather than viewing the current environment as a threat requiring a retreat, the most successful companies will focus on the opportunity to double down and communicate DEI’s true business value,” they write.

That may mean companies have to be more open-minded about where they recruit and hire from—a potential boost for less selective colleges, apprenticeship programs, and other noncollege providers that serve the vast majority of Black and Latino students in the U.S.

Schutzler sits on the board of Apprenti, a leading tech apprenticeship intermediary. He says Apprenti is well positioned to do more heavy lifting for companies that are serious about diversity and know they will have to look beyond the usual top universities for talent. The ruling “gives a strong argument that we need to further invest in a program like this,” he says.

Apprenti serves a diverse group of students but does so with legal safeguards in place that prevent companies from hiring based on underrepresented characteristics. That’s true of apprenticeships in general, according to Mardy Leathers, executive director of Apprenticeships for America and the former director of Missouri’s public workforce system.

The ruling also could create new demand for intermediaries that help students in the vast middle of higher education stay in college and connect to well-paying careers. Those organizations—including CodePath, Break Through Tech, Braven, and One Million Degrees—primarily work with HBCUs and public institutions that serve large numbers of Black and Latino students. They achieve diversity by going where most students of color actually are.

Braven, which partners with institutions like National Louis University, Spelman College, and San José State University, has already seen an uptick in the number of companies reaching out to learn more about its model and what it means to be a corporate partner, says Aimée Eubanks Davis, Braven’s founder and CEO.

Redirecting focus: It’s still early days. But the Supreme Court ruling might force both corporations and higher education beyond what some have seen as press release DEI.

In a pointed op-ed in The New York Times, Angel B. Pérez, chief executive of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, argues that it’s past time for corporate America to step up with real investments. Companies can’t just leave higher education—especially the less wealthy institutions that serve most students—with the hard and expensive work of taking people from all walks of life and preparing them for careers, he writes.

Pérez calls for major corporate giving and other investment. “The most obvious way to help colleges level the field among students is to level the field among colleges,” he writes. “But the largest gifts in higher education often go to the institutions with the most resources.”

Richard Arum, the UC Irvine professor who made waves a decade ago with the book Academically Adrift, and Mitchell L. Stevens, a Stanford professor who is seeking to build a new applied research science focused on working learners, sounded a similar note. For most students, they wrote in The New York Times, affirmative action was never enough.

Parting thought: The vast majority (84%) of students attend institutions that admit half or more of their applicants, they write, and what happens to those students has by far the biggest impact on equity and economic mobility.

“The ruling provides America with an opportunity to redirect the conversation from a relatively small number of schools,” they write, “and instead direct urgently needed attention to the vast middle and lower tiers of postsecondary education.”

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