The ‘Unseen’ Students in the Affirmative Action Debate

For as long as she remembers, Dolly Ramos hoped to have “the college experience,” she said, and one day become a nurse. But her biggest obstacle wasn’t competing for a spot at the school of her choice — it was attending and affording college at all.

The Supreme Court’s decision striking down affirmative action will very likely have powerful consequences for elite college admissions, potentially limiting the pool of Black and Hispanic students at the most selective universities and affecting the diversity of future leaders in business, government and beyond.

But the effect of race-conscious admissions was always limited to a relatively small number of students. For the vast majority, these schools are not an option — academically or financially.

Many head straight into the work force after high school or attend less selective universities that do not weigh race and ethnicity in admissions. At least a third of all undergraduate students — including half of Hispanic undergraduates — attend community colleges, which typically allow open enrollment.

“Somewhere it switched from ‘I want to be in school’ to ‘I just want to survive,’” said Ms. Ramos, 25, who recently finished her nursing degree. To get there, she cobbled together credits from multiple colleges in New York State, and at times lived in a youth shelter and slept on the floor of a professor’s office.

At Memorial Pathway Academy, a high school for at-risk students and new immigrants in Garland, Texas, more than 80 percent of students get a job after graduation. Nationally, nearly 40 percent of high school graduates do not immediately enroll in college.

“This is the unseen group,” said Josh Tovar, the principal. “Everyone sees the kid that is No. 1 ranked with 110 G.P.A. going to M.I.T. No one sees my boy that doesn’t have parents — that lives with Grandma, that came to me at 17, with five credits, and graduates.”

Fewer than 200 selective universities are thought to practice race-conscious admissions, conferring degrees on about 10,000 to 15,000 students each year who might not otherwise have been accepted, according to a rough estimate by Sean Reardon, a sociologist at Stanford University. That represents about 2 percent of all Black, Hispanic or Native American students in four-year colleges.

The affirmative action decision could still have broader ripple effects. Some experts worry it will send a message to Black and Hispanic students that they are not wanted on college campuses, or push them to more troubled schools, like for-profit institutions. It could also lead to a rollback of groups and programs that center on race.

Yet, for many students, the biggest barriers are practical: applying to, paying for and completing college.

Tysheem Sanders was the first person in his family to attend college.Credit…Mary Inhea Kang for The New York Times

“I was extremely lost and extremely scared,” said Tysheem Sanders, 24, who is the first in his family to go to college. He recalled the overwhelming moment an adviser instructed him to choose between “a subsidized loan, unsubsidized loan or a little bit of both.”

“I was like, ‘I’m not prepared for this,’” said Mr. Sanders, who is studying at the Borough of Manhattan Community College and hopes to become a high school guidance counselor.

College enrollment has been on the decline for more than a decade, in part because of rising costs.

Many states cut funding to public colleges in response to the Great Recession, and colleges in turn raised tuition. The price has often risen faster for lower-income students than those from higher-income backgrounds.

At the same time, financial aid has not kept up. The federal Pell Grant for low-income students, for example, once covered the vast majority of college costs; today, it meets only about a quarter.

Another Supreme Court ruling, rejecting a plan by the Biden administration to forgive some student debt for millions of Americans, could further discourage college attendance.

For many students, family obligations are also a complicating factor.

Dominic Cherry is pursuing a degree in construction management at a community college in Las Vegas.Credit…Marshall Scheuttle for The New York Times

Dominic Cherry, 22, said he turned down a spot at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas because he could not afford tuition. Other options were too far from his grandparents who helped raise him.

So after high school, he made a strategic decision: He got an office job at a construction company. He lives near his grandparents, who are in their 70s, and helps them with odd jobs, like fixing the garbage disposal. He has signed up for community college — covered by federal aid — with plans for a degree in construction management.

“If I could do it over again,” he said, “I would probably do it the way I did.”

Jessica Garcia hopes to attend college, but for now, she is saving up for an apartment.Credit…Emil Lippe for The New York Times

Jessica Garcia, 19, of Garland, Texas, yearns to go to college and aspires to become a detective. But it took nearly everything she had to finish high school. Many mornings, she struggled to get to school, she said, because her family did not have a car. Standing onstage at graduation in May was a triumph: She is the first in her family, she said, to earn a high school diploma.

For now, she has a job making sandwiches at Subway, and is saving up for her own apartment.

“College is something that I really would like to experience,” she said. “It’s my goal.”

Amy Harmon contributed reporting.

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