by Amy Kim, Ph.D, Physical Chemistry and Executive Director of EnCorps, Inc.
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”– Albert Einstein

There is so much to gain by making space for new perspectives, bold ideas, and calculated risk-taking at the problem-solving tables of our society. This is the premise that underscores our mission at EnCorps: we will all benefit from better science, technology, engineering, and mathematics if a greater number of bright minds can be cultivated through high-quality STEM learning and given the chance to make a meaningful difference in our world.   

A recent United States Supreme Court decision, however, just made this much, much harder.

On June 29, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court voted in a 6-3 decision to curb affirmative action in higher education—ending four decades of precedent that allowed colleges and universities to broadly consider applicants’ race in their admissions processes. Now, colleges and universities are prohibited from using race as one factor among dozens when considering how they will construct the makeup of their student body every year. 

At EnCorps, where we work with middle and high schools in historically oppressed communities to promote educational equity in STEM, we are deeply disheartened by this decision. We know that individual brilliance, boundless curiosity, and relentless work ethics aren’t exclusive to members of a singular race or small demographic group. These traits are found in every corner of our vastly diverse world. The reality, however, is that systemic barriers—many of which are deeply rooted in a long history of racism here in the United States—have been intentionally designed to keep opportunity at bay for some.

Less than a year after the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the use of affirmative action in higher education admissions, the EnCorps community is still grappling with the question of what it means for our students, our school communities, and our shared future. And we know many of you are grappling with that question, too.


Why Affirmative Action?

For 40 years, affirmative action supported the laudable goals of helping our college and university campuses become more accessible, equitable, and diverse. It was a practice that both acknowledged and remedied the harmful impact of laws and practices of the past, while contributing to a more hopeful outlook for the future.

In the U.S., there were laws on the books for decades that made it illegal for some groups, notably Black people, to receive a formal education—including simply learning how to read. Generations later, the harmful legacy of this deliberate legal strategy to prevent certain groups from becoming educated based solely on their race has been further compounded by our modern public education system. Public education funding in the U.S. is structured so school districts in high-poverty areas, which disproportionately enroll more students of color, receive less funding than districts in affluent areas, which serve predominantly white students. Students of color experiencing poverty are just as likely to be academically gifted, but because they are more likely to attend a school in a historically oppressed neighborhood that may not have the same resources for their enrichment and advantage (such as after school SAT prep) their test scores may be lower. Affirmative action, which recognizes that race has long served as a factor in preventing certain children from accessing a high-quality education, was partially designed as a counterbalance to our country’s legal and cultural practices of educational exclusion and injustice.

Equally as important, affirmative action has served as a forward-looking practice designed to help us shape a future society with even greater promise and potential. College is often the place where we first encounter people from all walks of life who have lived experiences that are very different from our own. This greatly expands our thinking, and on a broader scale helps us advance closer to our nation’s highest ideals. Rich diversity of thought supports our collective ability to generate the best solutions and ideas, become the most considerate neighbors that we can be to one another, and continue to serve as a global leader in democracy and innovation. 


Consequences of the Supreme Court’s Strike Down

Education opens doors to a thriving adulthood, and children from every background deserve the same fighting chance to have a good life. And as a nation, it is in our collective best interest to have as many well-educated and productive citizens as possible within the ranks of our population. Now that race-conscious admissions have been upended, we need to think critically and creatively about how we can ensure our institutions of higher learning don’t become de facto inaccessible to children of color who are experiencing poverty. 

There are many examples we can call on to understand the potentially harmful consequences of this decision and ensure we remain vigilant about the very real challenges ahead. As just one notable repercussion, evidence shows that state-level affirmative action bans in nine different states precipitated a downward enrollment trend among students from underrepresented minority groups. 

In California—where EnCorps is headquartered and where we partner with 170 schools, districts, and nonprofit organizations in communities that have been systemically oppressed—affirmative action was outlawed 25 years ago. The aftermath of this decision had significant adverse effects on Black, Latinx, and Native American students. After affirmative action policies were stripped away in the 1990s, students from these groups were less likely to earn STEM degrees, attend graduate school, or receive wages equal to non-Black and non-Latinx employees in the workforce.


Impact on Educators

The Supreme Court’s strike down now puts educators around the country in an exceedingly difficult position—especially those who are teaching students of color in traditionally under-resourced public schools. Not only will educators need to help students sort through questions and concerns about the decision, but they will also need to be able to provide clarity about the way this upended precedent will impact their students’ long-term college and career prospects.

We have already seen examples of ways educators and college advisors can encourage students to rethink the essay component of their college applications, supporting them to highlight the impact of their racial identities in shaping their individual character and worldview. We encourage educators to explore this approach with students this college application season, which the Supreme Court has stated is still allowable by law.

At EnCorps, we are supporting our STEM teachers to navigate this nuance to the very best of their ability. More than 50% of EnCorps educators identify as people of color, over 64% have advanced degrees, and collectively they bring an average of 15 years of STEM industry experience to their classrooms. Yet, despite these impressive accolades, they have redirected their careers and newly devoted their life to teaching because they know their personal stories shouldn’t be an anomaly. They believe that every child from every zip code should have the opportunity to explore an interest and personal potential in STEM. They have seen, firsthand, the challenges of working in an industry that continues to lack greatly needed diversity in terms of leadership and on-the-ground perspective—and the many ways that the field of science suffers because of it.


Resources to Rely on

This problem can only be solved by improving our education system on multiple levels and making STEM learning in both postsecondary and secondary education more accessible to future scientists and engineers from diverse backgrounds, despite recent efforts that have made the fulfillment of this goal more laborious. 

In the spirit of partnership, we have compiled a list of resources below for school administrators, teachers, counselors, and all members of a school community to help provide answers and support you to feel more equipped to encourage students toward STEM despite the barriers to their college enrollment. We hope these videos, articles, and lesson plans will help you feel more empowered to address the needs of your students and families as we continue to investigate the impact of this decision on their futures:

For Educators:

For School Counselors:

Help us keep the conversation going! Share other helpful resources you find to:

Amy Kim EnCorps Executive DirectorConnect with Amy on LinkedIn.