‘Banned! Voices from the Classroom’: The Path to an Elite Education, in the Absence of Affirmative Action

With a recent Supreme Court ruling gutting affirmative action, parents and students find themselves navigating a landscape where the rules have shifted with little notice.


Ms. Classroom wants to hear from educators and students being impacted by legislation attacking public education, higher education, gender, race and sexuality studies, activism and social justice in education, and diversity, equity and inclusion programs. Cue: a new series from Ms., ‘Banned! Voices from the Classroom.’ Submit pitches and/or op-eds and reflections (between 500-800 words) to Ms. contributing editor Aviva Dove-Viebahn at adove-viebahn@msmagazine.com. Posts will be accepted on a rolling basis.

Forever an educational minefield, the college admissions process is now more uncertain and politicized than ever, thanks to a recent Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action. Once seen as a means to promote DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) in academia and the workspace, affirmative action is now under scrutiny—and students and parents grapple with what it all means for the future. 

Amidst the opening of the 2024 Common App and looming early-action deadlines, the admissions calendar has no mercy for those who wait too late to strategize. Students dealing with the relentless pressure to excel, now find themselves navigating a landscape where the rules have shifted with little notice. Parents who once believed in the evolving significance of diversity in their personal and professional lives now question whether their life experiences still hold value in guiding their children in this process.  

A protest on Harvard University Campus in Cambridge, Mass., against the Supreme Court’s ruling against affirmative action on July 1, 2023. (Ziyu Julian Zhu / Xinhua via Getty Images)

A High School Student Speaks

I appear to be just your average student, happily embracing my socially awkward quirks and finding humor in the absurdity of the high school experience, but secretly I harbor a genius mind. I have slain 20 AP tests, conquered 15 IB classes, obtained a 10.0 grade point average and won a Nobel Prize in economics. On the down low, I founded a successful nonprofit company as the CEO and president, where I bridge gaps across nations to solve real world problems. I am, in fact, the perfect definition of success. I overcome impossible challenges and literally defy gravity—nothing can hold me down. 

While my classmates and teachers sleep, I solve world hunger and serve as an expert consultant to leaders on climate change. With a flick of my wrist, I create Fortune 500 companies that save the children and cure cancer, their budgets overflowing with millions of dollars in earnings each month. And that is just the beginning! Between classes, I compete on the international stage, leaving with first, second and third-place trophies in Math and Science Olympiads. And when I feel like resting, I retreat to my bedroom, where groundbreaking computer science inventions form in my head under the ethereal glow of moonlight. These inventions have earned me national awards and a spot on the cover of multiple magazines and newspapers.  

Such is the life that colleges (and parents) expect students to have lived before we reach our full adult height: a glittering curriculum vitae with high-level achievements, thanks to infinite time, inexhaustible resources and pure will.

A Parent Speaks

Gone are the days where being well-rounded distinguished one applicant from another.

As someone who survived the college application experience and works today as a graduate admissions officer, I understand that the process seems absurd to a high school senior. While my education and expertise imply a privileged point of view, in truth, I am as perplexed as many parents facing the college admissions landscape—because the focus has dramatically shifted.  

Ironically, this process should be a slam dunk for both of us. I’m an admissions professional, and my son is a terrific, motivated student. Yet it is a delicate balance: The pressures and uncertainties of college admissions process are in tension with the validity of my child’s perspective

Of course, differences separate undergraduate and graduate admissions, but general trends in admission persist. In particular, the perceived value of passion projects and curricular theming, which can carry hefty price tags, across (or into) a desired major. Gone are the days where being well-rounded distinguished one applicant from another. Today, the focus has moved towards a well-rounded class, full of highly specialized students.  

Common Ground

We both recognize the complexity of our journey. Despite our differences, we are both outsiders traversing unfamiliar terrain. 

  • The student, who has grown up hearing that his unique perspectives and experiences matter, feels suddenly alienated by this new affirmative action ruling, as if what he brings to the table is no longer valued. 
  • The parent, who has witnessed the emerging evolution of diversity as a defining aspect of personal and professional life, now feels as if it never existed. 

Both of us feel whiplashed by the constant yo-yo between our identities and contributions. It is in these sudden changes that we stand together, searching for understanding. In our shared experiences of marginalization, two generations can transcend difference, because we both know what it means to be made invisible, and we each feel the well-intentioned pressure to get it right the first time because of insider information and academic achievements. 

“Pursue your passion outside of school.” “Do what you love the most.” “Give back to the community.” “Make sure that you can quantify your impact.” If you don’t have this student’s affinity for code decryption, taking this advice at face value can eject your application from the review pile swifter than a shooting star. Because at the end of the day, the admissions process favors the passion project generated by 0s and 1s. 

Future Considerations

Complicating our feelings are the anticipated financial benefits affirmative action offers, which are now threatened. While one can argue that beneficiaries gain access to resources, significant social barriers still exist, such as limited networks, financial constraints, and a lack of social and political capital that typically accrue over many generations. 

Institutions committed to equity will look beyond the ruling and respond to the needs of students who are human bridges between their families’ first-generation roots and the legacy advantages of the wealthy. 

As many high-value extracurriculars and awards are closely tied to parents’ financial status—think: fencing, skiing, golf, water polo, international music competitions—the implications for first-generation parents who aim to send their children to elite colleges are stark.

It is axiomatic that race and wealth often intersect. Thus, the striking down of consideration of race in admissions raises major concerns for Black, Latinx and Native students whose parents do not fall below financial aid cutoffs at many institutions without merit-based awards. Second-generation students whose parents are likely still paying off college debt and are overwhelmingly under-represented face a double disadvantage.

Institutions have the capacity to mitigate the harm done by the Supreme Court, by radically redefining the concept of generational wealth, extending it beyond the first generation to students whose parents are higher-ed pioneers.  Institutions committed to equity will look beyond the ruling and respond to the needs of students who are human bridges between their families’ first-generation roots and the legacy advantages of the wealthy. 

Holistic admissions practices must identify diverse applicants in a non-exclusionary manner, acknowledging that traditional extracurriculars are tied to financial privilege, especially in the absence of the established networks that take decades to cultivate. These same institutions could broaden their outreach efforts and support by providing the types of authentic experiences that excite admissions committee members. 

Students are right to ask, can schools that put lots of weight on national competitions and projects host some of these events online to otherwise level that playing field? Poof! Problems solved! In an alternate universe, perhaps.

The very institutions that once upheld barriers to equitable opportunities can take concrete steps to bridge the gap. They can, in fact, meet the expectations to which they hold their own applicants. Through such proactive measures, educational institutions have the power to foster a culture of justice and diversity that extends far beyond the ivory tower.

Up next:

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.

About and

Marenda Wilson-Pham, PhD, serves as associate dean of the Graduate College at Rush University in Chicago, and is a public voices fellow of the OpEd Project.
Khai Pham is a high school junior.