NC Budget and Tax Center

Busting the myths about affirmative action

As the federal government moves to investigate the perceived harm that affirmative action has inflicted on white college hopefuls, it’s important to separate truth from fiction. This investigation is powered largely by myths. The truth is, people of color continue to face barriers to higher education and economic stability. And affirmative action hasn’t gone far enough in removing those barriers.

Myth: Affirmative action exclusively benefits people of color

Reality: Decades of data show that white women are the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action policies. So white women get the economic stability that comes with removing unjust barriers to success, but people of color continue to miss out.

Myth: People of color now make up the majority of college students

Reality: Harvard University recently made headlines because its incoming freshman class is less than 50 percent white for the first time in its history. However, most college and universities aren’t following that trend. And while the white-Latinx college enrollment gap has narrowed over the last decade, the white-Black enrollment gap has not. Higher education remains predominantly available to white people.

Myth: Affirmative action gives people of color a free ride to college

Reality: Nationwide, just under 40 percent of Black 25- to 55-year-olds carry student loan debt. The number drops to around 30 percent for Latinx and white people. But the incidence of student loan debt isn’t the sole issue. There’s also a wide racial gap in average debt amounts. Black students and their families incur twice as much student loan debt upon graduation. According to a 2016 Brookings Institute report, four years after graduation the Black-white debt gap more than triples from $7,400 to $24,720.

Instead of intergenerational wealth, communities of color are more likely to suffer intergenerational debt. And as North Carolina tuition costs continue to rise, this problem will worsen and the barriers to racial equity will grow.

Nearly two-thirds of North Carolina college graduates collect student loan debt along with their degrees. Meanwhile, state funding for public universities has declined since 2008, which puts the burden of funding on tuition-paying students and their families. And the debt amounts bear that burden out. Over the past 10 years, the average student loan debt has increased from roughly $16,000 to $25,000. Meanwhile the median income in our state has barely budged.

So while the federal government continues to question minority students’ presence in colleges, those same students are increasingly getting priced out of a college education and the ladder to the middle class that that education used to provide.

Marion Johnson is a Policy Advocate with the Budget & Tax Center, a project of the NC Justice Center.

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