How Eliminating Affirmative Action and DEI Will Impact Campus Safety

Without DEI programs, schools and universities place the academic performance, mental health, and safety of their most vulnerable students at risk.

How Eliminating Affirmative Action and DEI Will Impact Campus Safety

Image via Adobe, by doganmesut

Over the past few years, issues and initiatives related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the United States have become increasingly polarized. On one hand, companies have appointed DEI officers to ensure they’re making equitable hiring decisions; schools at every level have opened DEI offices to improve the student experience; and broader movements to promote and uphold social justice have been cast into the national spotlight.

More recently, the pendulum is swinging again. The attrition rate for DEI roles hit 33% at the end of 2022. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill in May barring the use of tax dollars to fund DEI initiatives at public state schools, and Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill in June banning DEI offices at public colleges and universities in the state. Just weeks later, the Supreme Court struck down the affirmative action programs that have sought racial equity in college admissions for the past twenty years.

As DEI programs are rolled back, it’s imperative to understand why they exist in the first place, particularly on college campuses. Cultural diversity is proven to enrich the educational experience for students of all ages. DEI initiatives improve communication and thought processing skills and broaden students’ understanding of and relationships with people who are different from them. These are critical competencies in today’s increasingly diverse global society.

Keeping these apolitical truths in mind, let’s dive into why DEI is critical for students and how the cessation of race-conscious admissions will impact every level of schooling in the United States, from kindergarten through higher education.

Why Higher Education Needs DEI

There is no shortage of research demonstrating how discrimination detracts from nearly every facet of a college student’s experience. When students are made to feel unwelcome due to their identity, it can negatively impact their college completion and their academic performance.

Furthermore, the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State recently found that students who experienced some form of discrimination showed significantly higher rates of distress across many categories related to mental health and well-being, including depression and anxiety. Experiencing multiple forms of discrimination unsurprisingly added to the level of distress reported.

There is also a direct correlation between inequity and campus safety: a national dataset of over 680,000 students revealed that 16% of students of color indicated the use of alcohol by other students on campus has made them feel unsafe or unwelcome. That’s 23% higher than the general student body.

Conversely, feelings of belonging are linked to increased academic attainment, retention, and improved mental health among undergraduate students. All of this is to say, without DEI programs or related initiatives in place, higher ed institutions place the academic performance, mental health, and safety of their most vulnerable students at risk.

Why K-12 Schools Needs DEI

Similarly positive educational outcomes related to feelings of belonging carry over to K-12 students. Numerous studies have linked feelings of safety at school with student well-being and academic success. In a survey of students between 12 and 18 years old, those who rated their schools higher for making them feel included were more likely to say they earned “excellent” or “good” grades themselves. A separate study revealed middle schoolers of all ethnicities have more positive experiences pertaining to safety, bullying, and loneliness when they attend more diverse schools.

That said, diversity itself is not enough to prevent students from experiencing institutional and social discrimination. In the aforementioned survey that prompted students to rate their schools, Black students were significantly less likely than their white and Hispanic peers to give their schools an “A” for respecting their identity. What’s more, a 2021 study of North Carolina high schoolers revealed that Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) students attending more racially integrated schools still reported instances of discrimination, including placement in less rigorous educational tracks and more overt acts that threatened their sense of safety and educational attainment.

This illustrates that students of all backgrounds and identities need DEI support far beyond equitable admissions. DEI programming and processes, paired with inclusive curricula and teaching, can promote an environment that welcomes and protects each and every student.

How Will the SCOTUS Ruling Impact Higher Education?

One of higher ed’s fundamental values is preparing students to be successful in their careers and communities. Most students attend college to launch their careers: compared to high school diploma holders, college graduates make 84% more in average annual wages, earn $1.2 million more over the course of their lifetime, and are half as likely to face unemployment.

Today, higher ed institutions are more diverse than ever, as students of color now represent nearly half of the college-enrolled population. This suggests that affirmative action was serving its intended purpose during its 20-year tenure, granting marginalized students an equitable opportunity to reap the benefits of higher education.

There are many pathways to developing career-ready skills, with a rapidly growing volume of non-academic opportunities. However, the college experience is uniquely beneficial in its ability to shape not just the caliber of a student’s knowledge and future workplace skills, but also the quality of their character. Honing “human skills” like critical thinking; exposure to diverse viewpoints; the ability to have dialogue across differences; empathy; creativity; emotional intelligence; effective decision making; and interpersonal communication is key to career growth and creating conscientious global citizens.

As such, anything that impacts college access among historically underrepresented communities – namely SCOTUS’s elimination of affirmative action – can exacerbate gaps in employment, skills, and advancement opportunities. Furthermore, it puts other students at a disadvantage by limiting their exposure to identities, cultures, and experiences that are different from their own.

Even if the requirement of a college degree is eliminated in an effort to hire diverse talent in the face of legislative changes, we should still be thinking bigger about access to a college education. Higher ed helps students develop competencies and characteristics that serve them and their future employers far beyond the technical elements of the jobs they’re pursuing. Rolling back affirmative action means candidates who are already underrepresented in the workforce will face additional barriers to personal and professional success.

How Will the SCOTUS Ruling Impact K-12 Schools?

If the current practices of race-conscious admissions that have so significantly widened the pathway for diverse representation in higher education institutions are no longer legal, then K-12 schools must do more to improve the educational outcomes and college readiness of underrepresented students.

The SCOTUS ruling raises the bar on the educational experiences provided to students of color in K-12 schools, which means bolstering belonging and providing culturally relevant education in these institutions is more important than ever. If indeed fewer underrepresented students are able to attend college as a result, K-12 schools may now need to provide more of the pro-social and vocational development experiences that students would otherwise access in a higher ed environment. This includes providing more education and skill-building around concepts like intercultural fluency, navigating across differences, career readiness, and so on.

To influence students’ social behaviors and prepare them to be open-minded, conscientious adults, K-12 schools should rely on DEI strategies like targeted social norm communication. Focusing on the social elements of DEI can be particularly impactful in educational settings, especially when done so from an early age. Imbuing students with pro-belonging messaging and normalizing inclusive actions will equip them with the awareness and skills they need to arrive at college (and enter the workforce) as well-rounded, empathetic individuals.

Affirmative Reaction 

Higher education remains a transformational pathway for lifting people out of poverty, improving communities, and shaping society for the better. When we fail to uplift students from marginalized backgrounds, namely by rolling back powerful initiatives like affirmative action and doing away with DEI programs, we create additional barriers for those who already face a disproportionate amount of obstacles.

The full implications of the SCOTUS ruling and the plethora of anti-DEI bills cropping up across the country remain to be seen. In the meantime, we must focus our energies on securing the funding and establishing standards that can improve the quality and rigor of K-12 curricula, especially those in underperforming or lower-income districts that tend to serve more underrepresented students.

Aligning classroom instruction and targeted student outcomes to admission criteria of public institutions within a particular state can help grow a school’s number of successful college prospects. The end of affirmative action does not mean the end of equitable education opportunities at large, but it will no doubt prove to be an uphill battle.

Rob Buelow is the general manager of education at Vector Solutions.

Editor’s Note: The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to Campus Safety.

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One response to “How Eliminating Affirmative Action and DEI Will Impact Campus Safety”

  1. Dr. L. Patterson says:

    I appreciate this article posing the benefits of DEI, but I would like to see equal space given to the arguments critical of DEI. I am sure that the pushback is not without merit.

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