Following the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling to strike down affirmative action in college admissions on June 29, 2023, the Steve Fund partnered with the American Council on Education (ACE), and hosted three Community Conversations to examine and discuss the impacts on the mental health of students of color. Following is an overview of the topic, and a description of how panelists detailed (1) what higher education institutions must do to sustain their commitment to equity in mental health availability and access; (2) how student-centered groups and communities can help to ensure consistent, ongoing support and services for their peers; and (3) suggestions to amplify and intensify efforts that welcome students of color and communicate to them that they belong.
The affirmative action legislation was originally enacted to address persistent social and economic inequities afflicting Black and Indigenous Americans. Lacking in-kind reparations, this policy – intended to mitigate the impacts of historic prejudice and discrimination – was not just seen as opening an avenue for advancement, it was felt as an assurance of hope. As the legislation ended, so did this sense that the moral weight of the government was on the people’s side of the scale. In its place: an unmooring, a loss of security, a feeling that the fragile gains of the civil rights movement were being stripped away.
This loss was a blow, but did not happen in isolation; it came on the heels of the global pandemic, economic downturn, and increase in racialized police violence epitomized by the murder of George Floyd and many others. The loss must therefore be contextualized in a broader historical scope: for many of our young students of color, the sense of confidence that society was moving forward safely – if slowly – is transforming into the cognitive burden of creeping racialized anxiety. Prior to the decision, many students of color already experienced tenuous belongingness on campuses and in classrooms. For many, the decision to end affirmative action contained an implicit message: you don’t belong. The struggle for inclusion is no longer worthy of engagement.
Within this context, higher education institutions that value diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) principles are charged to re-center the mental health and emotional well-being of students of color on their campuses. Many higher education institutions recognize DEIA as a social justice commitment that benefits all students and the whole community, and must now adapt in new ways to reflect that commitment. Campus environments are critical spaces in which students can actualize their talents and potential so that they may one day contribute meaningfully as citizens and social beings and live fulfilling lives. Improving mental health for students of color is not just an imperative of our educational mission, it is a clear benefit to society. .
During the pandemic, The Steve Fund convened a Crisis Response Task Force to examine the mental health impacts of COVID on students of color*. The Task Force found that these students experienced anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns at higher rates than White cohorts, and also faced increased difficulty in obtaining mental health care. Students with mental health challenges are also more likely to leave college, so addressing these needs is vital for retention and completion. Nobody wants to stay where they are an outsider, where their needs are not met, where they are not seen and appreciated – in other words, where they do not experience belongingness. Public health teaches that the best intervention is prevention. Primary prevention in this case means creating an engaging and inclusive environment, focusing on wellness, and providing tools for managing cognitive burden. Preventing mental health challenges before they emerge is even more imperative in the post-affirmative action landscape where students may internalize the message that they are not welcome and do not belong.
In the introductory sections of his book, Racism and the Minds of People of African Descent**, Dr. Jules Harrell depicts a new Black student’s first few days on a college campus – an “unwelcoming,” one might say. First, her family has accompanied her to move in; as she walks with her small niece and nephew in tow, someone shouts from a passing car “bet you don’t know who the fathers are.” This is a microaggression, an individual-level expression of race prejudice that intimidates and belittles. Next, as the student reviews her curriculum, a core requirement in history and traditions can only be met by a course in Western Civilization. Who was it that said the definition of privilege is when one’s own history is the requirement and all anything else is an elective? This is an example of cultural hegemony or Eurocentrism, a cultural-level expression of preference for the specific cultural products of a particular race. Finally, there are no seats left in a required seminar, and the alternate available class is developmental. Several students appeal to the professor for an override. Other (mainstream, White) students are allowed in the class, but this student’s level of academic preparedness is assumed insufficient; she is told to enroll in the developmental class (which will lengthen her time to completion and create a domino effect on her metrics). This is institutional-level or systemic racism. Even before the Supreme Court ruling, racial bias and negative stereotyping often led to assumptions that students of color were less intelligent or less academically prepared than their White counterparts. Students of color are generally well aware of these stereotypes (and may experience stereotype threat, reliably found to depress academic performance***), internalizing them as impostor phenomenon and learning to doubt their own skills, abilities, or their right to higher education. The sum total of these experiences – now exacerbated by the affirmative action decision – illustrates how a discouraging campus environment can lead to anxiety, depression, disengagement, and the decision that “college is not for me.” These factors can be multiplied for students of color from first generation, immigrant, LGBTQIA or other intersectional identities.
What can campuses do within the guidelines of the ruling to value diverse environments and support all students?
- First, conduct a needs assessment. Researchers must establish and implement collection and analysis of data not just on the ruling’s impact on admissions, but on the emotional impact for students currently on campuses or planning to apply to college.
- Second, institutions must utilize these data to adapt to the change. They must examine the leeway within the law to continue to value diverse admissions (i.e., instead of weighting admission scores on race, ranking essay materials on life challenges more directly). They must also develop plans to incorporate voices of impacted students to create responsive campus climates that support belongingness and well-being. Hiring and training trauma-informed leaders for student-facing offices can add critical capacity.
- Third, institutions must center inclusion and belonging on campus and in classrooms. DEIA should not be limited to one office or chief administrator (though that is a start!). Faculty are a vital resource for creating inclusion and belongingness, so training faculty – including adjuncts – is essential, as is hiring faculty for mission and supporting them in designing inclusive excellence curricula. Equity audits are also key. Regardless of best intentions, policies and procedures with systematic outcomes that negatively impact students of color must be examined, altered, or discarded. So often, we continue with processes and policies because “that’s how it has always been done.” We set the policies, and we can change them.
- Examine best practice programs that promote success of students of color and, where feasible, implement them. Student organizations and clubs, peer support, mentoring programs, and communities of faith (among others) can serve as protective factors to prevent isolation, promote belonging, and foster shared identity. Be deliberate about communicating to students that they are welcome and they belong.
- Assess outcomes of initiatives and set goals for continuous improvement.
The affirmative action decision was a loss, but can serve as motivation to redouble our inclusion efforts. By implementing equity in mental health principles and practices, we can still all win.
For more details and resources provided during each of the Community Conversations, please access the recordings here.
*The Steve Fund. (2020). Adapting and innovating to promote mental health and emotional well-being of young people of color: COVID-19 and beyond.
**Harrell, C.J.P. (1999). Manichean Psychology: Racism and the Minds of People of African Descent. Washington, DC.: Howard University Press.
***Steele, C.M. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape the intellectual identities and performance of women and African Americans. American Psychologist, 52, 613-629.