Why representation in higher ed is vital to us all


Paula Noonan

The Supreme Court’s decision to take affirmative action off the table for college admission decisions was expected. Affirmative action helped relieve the original stain of slavery and the numerous other insults to people, democracy, equality and opportunity for all, but its basis was insecure from the get-go. There’s another way to achieve some measure of fair opportunity access. Every higher education institution that receives tax dollars from us should have as its measurable objective a student population that reflects us.

Colorado’s population according to the 2020 census breaks down this way by racial and ethnic declaration: 70.7% White, 4.1% Black or African American, 21.1% Hispanic origin, 3.12% Asian, 3.6% Native American. The numbers here exceed 100% because some people declare in more than one category.

While the numbers change substantially over a decade, the census keeps up by making regular estimated adjustments. Every year, the state can announce what our population is and thus how various demographic groups comprise the state’s population. This distribution should be a basis for setting higher education school admissions for tax-supported institutions, which include private higher education institutions receiving federal and/or state funds.

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The numbers should be more than a guide and less than a rule. That is, other elements than demographics must be considered in building a college class, such as college readiness. Athletics and other specific talents and capabilities are in the mix. In general, colleges want a tuba player, budding sculptor, engineering whiz, history lover, creative writer, biology wonk, etc. There needs to be room in the admissions decision for all kinds of diversity, but also a mission of achieving this diversity through the guide/rule of our state’s demographic composition.

This basic guide/rule is essential to maintaining several democratic principles. People who pay taxes, that is almost everyone in the state, have an investment and inherent interest in the prosperity of the state. Whether its sales tax, gas tax, income tax, inheritance tax, or any of the other taxes and fees imposed to keep the state running, we have a stake. That stake should be confirmed and nurtured through access to higher education by the children whose extended families support our economy.

We all have a financial interest in ensuring that the cohort of students graduating from high school has the education necessary to continue the state’s healthy welfare and civic commitments. After all, it’s the people who live here that create and work in the huge number of enterprises that organically, holistically, in combination, enable housing, food, health care, transportation, entertainment, recreation, arts, education, technology, research, environmental quality, safety, privacy, security, enjoyment, happiness, etc.

We shouldn’t allow wealth, or the concept that some people pay more in taxes, serve as a determining criterion to access to higher education. A wealth factor diminishes the value of contributions of the whole of us to all of us. That is, a fast food server generally makes less income than a software coder, but in terms of contribution to the welfare and prosperity of the people in the state, there should be no meaningful difference in terms of access to education. Some may argue that students from families with less money should have more access to higher ed admission to roughly even up opportunity gaps. That could be another demographic element to put into the rule/guide opportunity distribution.

The goal of this concept is to base higher ed access on something concrete that we all agree on. That is: if you pay taxes in the state, no matter what the amount, and you reside in the state, you and yours should be included in the demographic distribution that public higher ed institutions should consider when building their freshman and freshwoman classes.

The benefits of this tax-based, demographic foundation for admissions are numerous. Since workers interact with customers and colleagues at roughly the rate of demographic distribution, it’s helpful to live, study and learn with each other at some point in our education life. Colleges and universities are places where students live outside the cocoon of their K-12 “choice” school or neighborhoods. Campuses and college classrooms are ideal for mixing people of different backgrounds and experiences, including demographic differences, together.

Supporting integration by our demographic distribution should build loyalty and commitment to our state’s well-being. All citizens will feel included in the best opportunities we can offer young people.

And academic achievement can be fairly served. College grads know that acceptance based on high school tests and achievement became irrelevant once they entered their first classroom. College students succeed or fail based on their hard work and effort. A hundred points plus or minus on SAT scores in high school does not determine whether a student will have a successful higher education experience. But interacting with every kind of person from every kind of background will make a difference to individual learning and social understanding.

The concept is simple and measurable. It generally ensures no group has preference over another while supporting roughly equal access by each demographic cohort to opportunity. The arguments about higher ed affirmative action admissions based on race or ethnicity are replaced by straight-up admissions distribution by tax-paying demography.

Paula Noonan owns Colorado Capitol Watch, the state’s premier legislature tracking platform.

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