Affirmative Action Ruling Could Impact Minority Scholarships

The Supreme Court’s recent decision to block affirmative action — preventing colleges from using race as one of many factors when evaluating applicants for admission — may also block scholarships and grants intended for minority students, even though the ruling did not extend to financial aid.

Though some institutional scholarships that take race into account may soon disappear, minority students with financial need still have access to a variety of funding sources for their education — including grants, external scholarships, aid related to family income and federal loans.

Fewer minority scholarships could decrease college enrollment

A few states have already begun threatening scholarships meant for students of color in the wake of the Supreme Court’s affirmative action ruling. On June 29 — the day of the Supreme Court decision — Missouri’s Republican attorney general sent a letter to state universities directing them to end race-based scholarships. The Republican speaker of Wisconsin’s state assembly and the president of the University of Kentucky have also released statements indicating that race-based scholarships could fade.

More institutions could follow suit, and not just because of political leanings. “If states and schools are looking at their legal budgets, and they’re saying, ‘look, we don’t want to be sued,’ the safer thing to do would be what Missouri is doing,” says Dwayne Kwaysee Wright, an assistant professor of higher education administration and director of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at George Washington University.

As a result, enrollment could suffer and education could become less attainable for some minority students.

“We know that there’s a racial wealth gap in this country,” says Wil Del Pilar, senior vice president of The Education Trust, an organization that works to dismantle racial and economic barriers in the American education system. “So if we’re going to limit access to resources that help people make college affordable, then we can expect to see decreases in enrollment.”

In 2019, the median white family in the U.S. had accumulated $184,000 in wealth compared to $38,000 for the median Hispanic family and $23,000 for the median Black family, according to a 2021 analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Other financial aid pathways remain open

While the affirmative action news may be discouraging to current and prospective students of color, both Wright and Del Pilar emphasize that college is still worth it.

“I do think that education is still a great way to try to change one’s life,” Wright says. “We know that over the course of a lifetime, a college degree brings millions if not more in additional earnings.”

Here’s how to get the financial aid you need to afford a college education, even in the face of dwindling minority scholarships.

Submit the FAFSA

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the key to unlocking financial aid, including federal student loans, grants, work-study programs and some scholarships. Be sure to submit the FAFSA each year you’re in school, even if you don’t think you’ll qualify for any financial aid.

The FAFSA will also put you in the running for the need-based Pell Grant — an award of up to $7,395 per year. Eligibility isn’t tied to income alone, so you could qualify even if you don’t think you will.

Start planning early

Time can be a valuable tool. Start having conversations with your guidance counselor or college advisor as early as the second semester of your freshman year of high school about higher education options and costs, says Wright.

“I think the sooner families start to plan for college, and the sooner families start to have that conversation with their students, the better the outcome will be,” Wright adds.

Apply for lesser-known scholarships

To find a scholarship, start by casting a wide net. The Labor Department’s Scholarship Finder is a helpful resource because it allows you to sort through nearly 9,000 scholarships, fellowships, grants and other financial aid award opportunities. Reach out to your target schools; colleges and universities often have big lists of scholarships available to students. And take a look at scholarships offered in your community, in addition to the bigger, well-known scholarships.

“Everyone’s trying out for the Coca-Cola scholarship, it’s national, but there are probably less folks who are applying for your local Boys & Girls Club scholarship,” says Del Pilar, who once worked as a financial aid counselor.

Private external scholarships meant for minority students are not yet facing the same legal challenges as institutional or state scholarships, says Del Pilar. For example, the NAACP offers a variety of merit- and need-based scholarships to Black students and students of color.

Think outside the box when it comes time for college applications, too.

“I really hope that students will take advantage of some of the great historically Black colleges, minority-serving institutions, Hispanic-serving institutions and regional colleges we have around the country,” says Wright. “Going to community college for your first two years and then transferring is always a good cost-saving option.”

Ask how your college handles external scholarship money

It’s not enough to apply for and win an external scholarship — you also need to check your target school’s “packaging policy,” which outlines how the scholarship money will impact other financial aid you may receive, explains Del Pilar. In some cases, this policy may mean that it’s not worth it to apply for external scholarships.

For example, a school’s packaging policy may be to replace every dollar you bring in with the dollars that it has given you. So if your school awards you a $5,000 scholarship, and then you bring in a $1,000 external scholarship, then your school may decrease the scholarship they gave you to $4,000. At the end of the day, you’ll still have the same $5,000 worth of scholarship money.

“It could be disheartening for a student to do all this work to bring in extra dollars that they thought they were going to get, for the institution just to take away money that they had awarded you through their own institutional financial aid,” Del Pilar says.

Watch for new financial aid options

Lastly, keep an eye on new scholarship framing. “What might be left open is sort of an intersectional way to apply financial aid,” says Wright. “So you might not say ‘this scholarship is exclusive to Black students.’ What you may say is ‘this scholarship is exclusive to any students who come from the [historically Black] seventh or eighth wards in D.C. and whose family makes below $80,000 a year.’”

The University of North Carolina, one of the schools singled out in the Supreme Court cases for its affirmative action policies, announced on July 7 that it would provide free tuition and waive fees for all in-state students whose families earn less than $80,000 per year. The policy begins with the incoming class in 2024.

Duke University, a private North Carolina-based institution, unveiled a similar policy in June for students hailing from North Carolina or South Carolina whose families make $150,000 or less per year.

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