Skip to content

The Walls Around Opportunity: The Failure of Colorblind Policy for Higher Education

By Gary Orfield
The Walls Around Opportunity book cover

An excerpt from the book and Q&A with author Professor Gary Orfield about his perspective on social and economic barriers to higher education.

In his new book, “The Walls Around Opportunity,” UCLA Professor Gary Orfield, co-director of the UCLA Civil Rights Project, argues that while families of color share the dream of higher education, racial inequality hinders that dream for many from an early age, and that colorblind policies have made college inaccessible for far too many students.

The book paints a troubling picture of an education system that advantages the privileged, where students of color are walled off from opportunity by deeply ingrained racial inequalities, and schools fail to provide the preparation they need to access and succeed in college. It is a portrait of a system of higher education, marked by a tradition of exclusion, where cost is a barrier and colorblind policies have done little to open the doors.

Orfield renews the call for race conscious policies that can open the doors to educational opportunity for all, and sets forth ideas for deep changes that result in meaningful gains for our systems of education and all of the people they need to serve.

Ed&IS: Give us an overview of the book.

Gary Orfield: The book is about the concern that higher education is serving to stratify the country rather than to equalize it. Higher education institutions almost all have equity as a basic premise and basic goal. But as an aggregate, they act in ways that privilege the privileged and deny reasonable access to those who are less advantaged, especially to people of color. It’s a system that operates as if everybody has a fair chance.

The exception is the use of affirmative action policies, which are now under attack by the Supreme Court of the United States. The book is written with the realization that we may be coming to the end of affirmative action policies, and that we have not reached the goal of racial equity. And it states that one of the things that academics should do is not to worry too much about what seems feasible right now, but to think about what actually needs to be done.

Ed&IS: What does the book say about affirmative action?

Orfield: The Supreme Court will hear two major cases concerning race-based affirmative action from Harvard and the University of North Carolina in October 2022. They are going to hear cases about whether we should dismantle the last remaining educational remnant of the civil rights evolution. Affirmative action policy is all we have left in the battle for racial integration and equity in higher education and it’s been under assault steadily for the last 20 years.

Affirmative action is important because, until we had it, we had almost no significant integration of our elite higher education institutions. Affirmative action did that. It didn’t do it thoroughly, but it made a big difference. It created a critical mass of students of color at elite schools. Without affirmative action, we’re likely to lose a good part of that. That is what has happened in the states that have abolished the policy, including California. Harvard told the courts that they will lose 45% of their students of color if they are forced to not consider race in any way in admissions.

Affirmative action is very important, but it’s mostly important for the elite schools in the country. But it is also inadequate there—because so many other aspects of our society, in addition to admissions to college, bear on whether or not people have a fair chance to go to and to survive college.

Ed&IS: What are the walls around opportunity?

Orfield: We have multiple race-related walls around access to higher education. And we’ve been more or less blinded to that by several decades of policy in higher education that has proceeded as if race really wasn’t a fundamental problem.

The book starts out with the description of the conflict between the aspirations of higher education and the realities of it, and looks at the continuing failure to adequately serve people of color, who are already the majority of public high school students in the United States. It argues that we have been blind to the reality that we’re facing in terms of higher education barriers. We have to think about strategies that are more far reaching.

The book documents the systematic racial inequalities we have in every aspect of life and says you can’t be colorblind in a society where everything is related to color. You can’t really think about higher education policy as if we are a colorblind society, as if the civil rights movement solved all of our issues, and we can just proceed as if we don’t have to think about race in every aspect of life. The pandemic has underlined these realities, as the differential racial impacts have seriously widened gaps in preparation because of the different resources of schools and families of different races.

Ed&IS: How does the civil rights movement shape what has happened?

Orfield: The book describes the history of our country’s treatment of the issues of racial inequality and says that from the beginning of the United States, up until the civil rights movement, the dominant policy in selective institutions of higher education was exclusion. We had almost no significant representation of people of color in leading colleges. That only changed because the institutions and the government decided to change it. That decision was made in the 1960s at the peak of the civil rights movement, a movement that lasted from the middle sixties into the early seventies when we expanded opportunity and acted against discrimination. That was when we created all of the affirmative action plans that still exist today. But even then, they were limited.

After the civil rights movement, that ended with the killing of Dr. King and the election of Richard Nixon and his quick appointment of four Supreme Court justices, the United States didn’t do much. In the 1980s, we slid into a period of denial. We basically said we need to raise standards, we need to be more competitive, schools and colleges shouldn’t worry about racial equity. Students should not have their way paid for college, they should have to make it on their own. We should shift the burden of college costs from the state to the individual.

At the same time, we were abandoning the effort to make access to our best high schools and public schools available to students of color. We pursued integration efforts from the middle sixties until the middle eighties, but since then, under radical limits from conservative Supreme Court decisions, we’ve systematically re-segregated our school systems. When we look at the walls around opportunity, we haven’t made much progress at all. In fact, we’ve gone backwards.

Ed&IS: What is the wall of preparation?

Orfield: The second wall the book discusses is preparation. Preparation has become much more unequal for college; even as selective colleges have become much more competitive. There is higher competition, more applications, and you have more unequal preparation. In California, a Black or Latino student is about one twentieth as likely as a white or Asian student to be in a top performing high school. If you’re not in a top performing high school and you haven’t been in good public schools, your chances of being fairly prepared for competitive college admissions and success in a competitive college, go way down.

Ed&IS: What is the wall of cost?

Orfield: The third major wall is cost. In the civil rights era, and in the 1970s, we made colleges much more accessible. We expanded the number of colleges, increased financial aid and held costs stable. Cost was actually a declining share of family income. Beginning in the eighties, we decided to cut back. We went through a tax cutting phase that took place initially here in California with Proposition 13, but spread across the country, and cut state and federal taxes. As a result, we had to sharply cut state and federal support for higher education in important ways. We kept the colleges going by shifting the cost to the students and their families, through far higher tuition and costs, often paid through loans.

Our financial aid system did not keep up with the cost of college and a huge gap emerged between what college costs and what many families could afford. At the same time, family incomes were becoming much more unequal in society. In the 1980s, we became, and today we still are, the most unequal advanced society in the world in terms of income distribution. This particularly hit families of color that are not only way below in average income levels, but drastically below in wealth, which is also very important for higher education access.

Ed&IS: What needs to happen now?

Orfield: It is likely that the Supreme Court is going to rule against affirmative action; we’re going to lose that as a tool. Researchers need to help identify what else can be done now but also think hard about what actually needs to be done if higher education is to be more equitable.

Affirmative action is important for elite schools but they will have to search for the most equitable practices such as cutting the requirement for admissions testing, as most have done during the pandemic, and doing vigorous recruitment and comprehensive review of applications.

For most schools, what is important now are targeted resources for students and support making up for the fact that they’ve been so unfairly prepared for college. And we have to address retention problems, and those relate directly to whether you’ve been prepared and whether you’ve got enough money to stay. Financial aid offices need to use their discretion to consider the actual situation of students from families of color.

What we proved in the civil rights revolution is that if you really want to change the outcomes in terms of racial equity, you have to have specific goals, a specific plan. There have to be sanctions and resources attached to it. People need to be held accountable. It doesn’t change by itself. Segregation and inequality are powerful self-perpetuating sets of institutions and beliefs. And they will continue unless they are disrupted.

We need race conscious policies that are designed with clear racial goals and mechanisms. And we need race sensitive policies that are designed with an awareness of the reality of race in the society, so that even though schools can’t consider race explicitly, they can consider the range of realities that students face.

Gary Orfield photo

American society is well along in a great transition, nearing the end of its white European majority, but it is failing to educate its future majority. If our society is to succeed, the country and its institutions, including its colleges, must find ways to offer real opportunities to groups they have historically subordinated and discriminated against. There is no real alternative, given the birth and migration patterns that have been changing our communities for a half century. White birthrates have been below the replacement level for four decades, and immigration is the reason we have not aged out as drastically as many peer nations. Our colleges need to reflect a changing nation. The great wave of immigration from the 1970s until the Great Recession was overwhelmingly nonwhite, something we’ve never experienced before, though it was restricted at least for a time under Donald Trump. College enrollment has declined since 2010. We have campuses that were designed to serve the white middle-class society of the past and are now challenged to adapt. If we are to have the educated workers and leaders an advanced economy demands, we have to reach groups that have long been neglected. If we want to bring together our polarized communities, sharing higher education can be a powerful tool. We have never achieved higher education equity for Black Americans or for our native peoples. The children of a vast immigration from Latin America have become our largest minority and have not received equal opportunity. Since 2000, three-fifths of the nation’s most selective public universities have had a decline in Black enrollment and Latino students’ access has declined relative to their growing population. How can the higher education system respond? Do we understand the roots of the crisis? Is there any plan?

Walls Around Opportunity Cover

Americans see college as decisive in the lives of students. You can see the clear pattern in Gallup polls across the decades. In 1978 more than a third of the public thought college was very important, which rose to 58 percent in the early 1980s and 70 percent by 2013. College education came under attack by sectors of the rising conservative populist movement in the Trump administration, and the number saying it was very important dropped somewhat, but only 11 percent, one person in nine, said it was not important. Blacks and Latinos were most likely to say it was very important.

The social and economic impacts of higher education are dramatic, and the inequality of opportunity for students of color and those from poor families is systemic. Typically, college completion makes a major difference in terms of employment, earnings, wealth, and even the probability of marriage and good health. It is strongly related to voting and public involvement, thus to power in the political system and to the health of democracy. In 2016, in a period of unusually low unemployment, among people aged twenty-five to sixty-four, 84 percent of college graduates were working, compared with 68 percent of high school grads and 55 percent of dropouts. Among Blacks the numbers were even more dramatic: 85 percent of college grads had jobs, but only 61 percent of high school grads and a dismal 39 percent of dropouts did. Latino college grads had about the same level of employment as their white and Black counterparts, 84 percent, and their employment shares with less education were the highest—72 percent for high school graduates and 65 percent for dropouts—but the quality of the jobs and incomes were low. The problem for Latinos is the low level of degree attainment. The situation is particularly threatening for males of color. College-age Black males are about one-seventh of the nation’s male population but they receive one-twelfth of the college degrees (8.5 percent). Latino males are more than a fourth of the nation’s college-age males but they receive one-ninth of the degrees (11.2 percent). The huge gap in college attainment for men of color is a basic cause of poor employment and income, low levels of marriage, involvement in the criminal economy, and many other problems that affect not only the men themselves but also their families and their communities.

There are gaps at every stage. People of color are less likely to graduate from high school, less likely to immediately enroll in college, less likely to go to a four-year college, substantially less likely to graduate from college within six years, far less likely to get increasingly important postgraduate degrees, and less likely to be employed or get equal wages afterward. If colleges are to help heal the wounds of separation and inequality in U.S. society, better policies are needed at many levels.

College education is critical in America’s twenty-first-century society. It is the key to opportunity and the pathway to a middle-class life. It has become, for most, the boundary between a life of possibilities and resources and a life of struggle and immobility. In our recessions, college graduates are largely protected while others suffer; in times of prosperity, they get a greatly disproportionate share of the gains. There are, of course, nongraduates in fields like the skilled trades, small business, or good union jobs who do well, but the overall pattern is clear, and college is the high road to success. If the huge gap in college completion continues between whites and Asians and other students of color, wide racial differences will be perpetuated into the rising generation. Since college is so critical to their families, the advantage will pass into children’s lives.

Students of color have the desire and make the attempt, but they often do not have the preparation and means for success. Students from all groups have been starting college at higher levels than in the past, but the gaps in completion are actually widening. Starting college somewhere is good, but where you start matters. After enrolling, students must succeed and have the financial means to continue if they are to reap the gains that come from completion. Admitting a student with severely defective preparation or who cannot pay the coming bills often leads to an academic tragedy. A big loan debt without a degree can be crippling. Weak preparation in clearly inferior schools where almost no one is well prepared is a huge barrier. Very capable students find they simply haven’t been given the academic skills other students have received. Starting without the means or extended family support to pay college bills, even with student loans, may make success impossible. These are the second and third walls that must be crossed if we are to move toward equity and real development of students’ capacity.


America’s selective colleges, both the private ones and the strong public flagship universities, were overwhelmingly white institutions throughout their history until the civil rights movement. Almost nothing serious had been done to integrate U.S. colleges before the movement, which reached its peak in the mid-1960s. In 1965, the year of the Selma march, the Voting Rights Act, and the first large urban riot, the selective schools of New England, for example, professed their readiness to welcome Black students but had only 1 percent Black enrollment. Students, faculty, and local community organizations identified with the great movement for racial justice developing in the South and put pressure on their institutions to take action. Affirmative action became a central tool when selective colleges recognized that their normal processes had never produced significantly integrated campuses and classes and that it would not happen without making it a clear goal and changing policies and practices as needed to make it happen.

The reality was that admissions on the basis of a traditional formula for “merit” and the special treatment of children of alumni and other groups who had special skills, often fostered by special opportunities, guaranteed that there would be little representation of students of color who were being ill-prepared in highly unequal segregated schools and whose parents were not alumni and had limited resources. Test scores were relied on, but scores are very strongly linked to family income and parent education. Privileged children gained from family and school educational resources and experiences. In a society where housing is strongly related to the quality of school opportunity and families of color lack the income and savings or housing equity of whites and Asians and often face housing discrimination, unequal local schooling is built into the racial structure of communities. We have had a strong, deeply rooted, long-established web of inequality, and it did not change itself. Waiting for more traditional students who simply had a different skin color wasn’t a workable model. To overcome those and other realities, colleges had to try to assess factors such as teacher recommendations, commitment, and desire to learn, and actively recruit unprecedented numbers of students of color to their campuses. In our extremely unequal society, colleges found that they must consider the circumstances of students of color to fairly assess them and also institute a variety of support efforts on campus.

Colleges had to face the hard realities of race if they were to become diverse. Most Black, Latino, and Native students were from families and schools with more limited resources and did not have the preparation needed to score well on the standardized tests. Many lacked normal prerequisites because of their school’s limited curriculum or weak counseling. Their families, on average, had much lower incomes and vastly lower wealth, as well as different needs from those of traditional students. That meant that the normal financial aid policies and assumptions often wouldn’t work. They had to convince

the students of color to come to campuses where they would be isolated in an overwhelmingly white population with white student organizations and, often, some racial hostility. They had to plan academic support. This was the situation in the Ivy League, the competitive public flagships, and strong private colleges and universities. The response to the demands of the civil rights era was voluntary race-conscious action, and it soon began to make a significant difference, moving colleges from virtually all white to a modest level of diversity. In the South, the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Higher Education Act meant that there were more federal funds and that universities segregated by law could put their federal dollars at risk if they did not take positive action, though that received little attention until the 1970s when a court ordered the Nixon administration to take action to enforce the 1964 law.

It was obvious at the outset that all kinds of adjustments had to be made if the campuses were to integrate and students were to succeed. The hope was that the enforcement of civil rights changes and the many social reforms of the Great Society would help solve the underlying problems of inequality over time, but the country took a long, sharp turn in a conservative direction. Many of the domestic programs were drastically cut back and progress on various fronts stalled or even reversed. The Supreme Court, changed by conservative appointments, became far less supportive of broad race- conscious remedies after President Richard Nixon was able to appoint four justices. By the 1980s, under President Ronald Reagan, the country faced a sharp reversal in both civil rights and social programs. It has yet to recover.

Although the affirmative action policies became rooted in many campuses and the failure to close huge racial gaps made it apparent that the underlying problems were not solving themselves, affirmative action was repeatedly challenged. The ideas that civil rights policies were unnecessary and amounted to discrimination against whites produced continuous challenges. The battles surfaced in three crucial Supreme Court decisions from 1978 to 2016, in each of which affirmative action survived by a single vote in a deeply divided Court. Two of the cases were argued and decided during administrations working to end affirmative action. In the first great decision, the 1978 decision in University of California Board of Regents v. Bakke, the Court prohibited setting aside a specific number of seats for students of color, a quota, but held, by a single vote, that universities could consider racial diversity as a “plus factor” because of the educational value of diverse experiences to the university and all students.

As the courts became far more conservative in the 1990s, there was a major attack. A striking decision by a court of appeals, Hopwood v. Texas, ruled that affirmative action in Texas was unconstitutional. The same year, the voters of California passed a state constitutional amendment that outlawed affirmative action, which stimulated similar action in nine other states. Two lawsuits against the University of Michigan brought the issues back to the Supreme Court in 2003. The Court held, by a single vote, that it was illegal to simply add points for race in a mechanical admissions formula but that an individualized comprehensive admissions policy considering race as one of several factors was legal. The Court ruled that there was convincing evidence that racial diversity was an educational benefit and a compelling interest that justified this limited consideration. There was a major mobilization of higher education in defense of the university. (After winning the case, however, Michigan opponents succeeded in enacting a state referendum barring affirmative action, and the referendum was upheld by the Supreme Court.)

The issue came back to the Court twice in two decisions in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas. The university was widely believed to have the strongest existing alternative to race-conscious admissions, the 10 percent plan, in spite of analyses showing its shortcomings. The 2003 Grutter decision had recognized and relied on all the research concluding that campus diversity was a “compelling interest” in enriching the educational process, and the Supreme Court agreed in the Fisher cases. Now the question was whether there was a workable alternative that would produce diversity without considering race. In the first decision, the Court accepted the idea that there was a legitimate compelling educational interest in campus diversity but concluded that the lower courts had not demanded sufficient proof from the university that there was no colorblind way to achieve the needed diversity. After serious documentation by the university, the Supreme Court ruled that there was sufficient evidence of the absence of a workable alternative and upheld the university’s affirmative plan by a single vote in a 2016 decision written by Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Affirmative action was, in practice, an important but modest policy. It never came anywhere close to producing proportionate representation of students of color in selective universities. Stanford professor Sean Reardon and associates concluded that in spite of affirmative action, whites were five times as likely as Blacks to attend selective campuses. As student demand for the most selective campuses soared, students of color were more squeezed out. A 2015 report of a national survey of admissions offices showed that the large majority of selective campuses, except for public institutions in states

where it was illegal, found it was crucial to continue affirmative action. Affirmative action for low-income students was not seen as a substitute. In fact campuses practicing affirmative action for race were also practicing it simultaneously for students from low-income families. Extensive research analyzing admissions variables, considering many alternatives and combinations of variables, found no feasible alternatives that would produce anything like the results of affirmative action at a cost that universities could manage. Although it affects a small share of students, it has a substantial impact on the institutions that train most American leaders and the students of color who would have been excluded but show that they can meet the requirements and become important leaders in many institutions.

Excerpted from “THE WALLS AROUND OPPORTUNITY: The Failure of Colorblind Policy for Higher Education” by Gary Orfield. Copyright 2022. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press.

This article is featured in the Fall 2022 Issue of UCLA Ed&IS Magazine.