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Threats to the Early Childhood Workforce: The Supreme Court Rules Against Racial Equity and Inclusion Twice in One Week

July 3, 2023

In the last few days, the Supreme Court rendered two decisions that will have an enormous negative impact on the early childhood education workforce, equity, and systems change.

On June 29, the Supreme Court struck down higher education affirmative action practices that use a student’s race as a factor in admissions (Students for Fair Admissions v. The University of North Carolina), a decision that Justice Sotomayor said was “nothing but revisionist history…” Current research suggests that affirmative action in selective-enrollment schools (specifically, schools that admit 50 percent or less of applicants) will initially affect only a minority of institutions of higher education (IHEs), i.e., fewer than 200 of the most selective colleges and universities in the country. These schools account for roughly two percent of all undergraduates of color graduating yearly in the United States.[1] In addition, the 36 most selective IHEs (e.g., Harvard, Yale, Stanford) compared to open-enrollment schools enroll more students from families in the top one percent of the income distribution than from the entire bottom half, and spend almost eight times more per student than do less selective schools.[2] In the last 30 years, affirmative action policies in admissions have led to greater numbers of graduates of color in selective enrollment IHEs; but within these institutions, students of color from low-income and middle-income families remain “drops in an ocean of both social class and racial privilege.”[3] Ending affirmative action in higher education for elite IHEs will create consequential problems in at least three ways for people of color: 1) it will make it harder for predominantly middle- and upper-class students of color (who have been beneficiaries of these policies, in comparison to children of working class families) to gain admission to elite universities and colleges which have served as pipelines for alums to prestigious and influential careers; 2) it reinforces terrible messages about race and class privilege and resurrects the specious assertion of a color blind meritocracy; and 3) it will have a ripple effect across American society providing cover for individuals and entities (such as, politicians, policymakers, corporations, elite private schools, among others) who may feel they no longer have to address diversity, equity, and inclusion issues in policy development, legislation, employee hiring, promotion, and firing. As Sotomayor added in her response to the opinion, “The Court ignores the dangerous consequences of an America where its leadership does not reflect the diversity of the People.”[4]

But the second decision the Supreme Court made on June 30 (Biden V. Nebraska) will have a similar and immediate negative impact on much larger numbers of institutions and students, particularly students of color. In the US, most elite universities do not educate most undergraduate students or most undergraduate students of color. These students are more likely to attend community colleges, land grant universities, state schools, historically Black colleges and universities, minority-serving institutions, tribal colleges, and technical schools that typically have open-enrollment policies and serve the majority of Black, Brown, American Indian, Latino/a, immigrants, white, and first-generation students.[5] The Supreme Court’s decision on President Biden’s right to eliminate student debt is as consequential to those students as is the affirmative action case. Students who attend these schools may cobble together funding, often graduate with substantial debt, and may not graduate ever or on time because of financial issues. We have plenty of evidence from the research on barriers to educational attainment for the early childhood workforce to recognize the threat of both the affirmative action decision AND the student loan decision. The early childhood workforce largely depends on open-enrollment IHE’s and loans from the federal government. Over the last decade, many state legislatures have significantly cut aid to state colleges and universities from their budgets, leaving many students more dependent on limited support from federal loans (such as Pell Grants) and further disadvantaged by increasing racial and class inequality.[6]

These two Supreme Court decisions will have a devastating effect on the early care and education workforce from the leadership to direct service providers, and to families who often also rely on these same educational systems and loan supports to secure a better future for themselves and their children. Advocates for early childhood education and racial equity will need to organize and fight even harder than before to support children, families, and providers, proving Justice Brown’s point that “…ultimately, ignoring race just makes it matter more.”[7]

[1] Mervosh, S., & Closson, T. (July 1, 2023). ‘The Unseen’ Students in the Affirmative Action Debate. New York Times, New York, NY. Retrieved online:
[2] Merkovits, D. (September 12, 2019). American Universities Must Choose: Do they Want to Be Equal or Elite? Time, Retrieved online:
[3] Merkovits, D., page 2.
[4] Hamid, R.D. & Seller Hill, J. (June 30, 2023). In Fiery Dissents, Justices Sotomayor and Jackson Rebuke Affirmative Action Ruling, The Harvard Crimson, Harvard University, Cambridge Massachusetts. Retrieved online:
[5] Mervosh & Closson, (July 1, 2023).
[6] Mitchell, M., Leachman, M., & Saenz, M. (October 24, 2019). State Higher Education Funding Cuts Have Pushed Costs to Students, Worsened Inequality. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Washington, DC. Retrieved online:
[7]  Hamid, R.D. & Seller Hill, J. (June 30, 2023).

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