Activists demonstrate as the Supreme Court hears oral arguments on a pair of cases that could decide the future of affirmative action in college admissions, in Washington, Monday, Oct. 31, 2022. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The list is long when considering the issues in education today. While tremendous strides have been fought for and achieved, year after year, there are challenges and threats to dismantle affirmative action and other rights that serve to provide equality in education for all.

Since its inception, there has been a lack of understanding and deeply held resentment for affirmative action, although it’s proven to be successful in leveling the playing field and has opened the door for people of color to attend and successfully compete in college.

Scores of people now holding professional jobs who have healthy, productive lives owe their success to affirmative action and a myriad of supportive programs that also includes early childhood care for student parents. There have been high dropout rates for student parents who don’t have the benefit of child care access and financial support.

Despite positive efforts — obstacles and deterrents continue to stand in the way of many pursuing higher education — including student loan debt, which has caused many potential students to choose not to enter college at all to avoid debt or to leave before graduation to keep mounting debt from building. Those who graduate struggle to pay back loans with amounts that incur interest and grow each year.

“I graduated over 15 years ago and I now owe over $40,000 and I don’t know how I will ever pay it all back, it just keeps growing and it’s scary,” said Martha Gracia. 

“I work two jobs and I’m always looking for more work, but still I’m barely staying afloat. It’s getting harder and harder just to live, to pay for rent and food, gas to get to work. I know I’m just paying the interest on this loan.  Over the last few years, because of COVID-19, I wasn’t able to work as much. Having this hanging over my head keeps me up worrying at night,” she said.

Currently, those like Gracia with federal student loans are waiting to see if the Biden administration’s loan forgiveness plan will survive two Supreme Court challenges. The US Department of Education is also working to create a new repayment option that could reduce monthly payments in half. Leading the charge to oppose Biden’s plan are Republican-led states. Lower courts have previously ruled in favor of the states and issued an injunction. The Supreme Court is expected to hear oral arguments in the case on Feb. 28.

A recent briefing held by the Leadership Conference Education Fund and Ethnic Media Services emphasized the need for diligence to preserve education rights and protect all students.

“There are threats to equal opportunity while there should be advancements toward justice and equality,” said Liz King, senior program director for Education Equity at the Leadership Conference Education Fund.

King believes there will be significant hardship to students if the Supreme Court rejects the president’s program to cancel student loan debt.

“The Biden-Harris administration student debt relief plan is an urgently needed moral and lawful response. The plan provides targeted relief for over 40 million working and middle class Americans whose family finances and entire livelihoods were devastated by the pandemic,” said Genevieve ‘Genzie’ Bonadies Torres, associate director for the Educational Opportunities Project of the Lawyers Committee on Civil Rights Under Law.

“Without this relief, millions of borrowers will be pushed past the financial brink when student loan repayments restart and among them are millions of borrowers of color who we know had been hardest hit by the pandemic,” said Torres.

Defaulting on a student loan payment can impact your whole life. People suffer the consequences of poor credit, preventing them from securing basic necessities including housing. Torres also noted that people of color take out more student loan debt because they don’t have the same generational wealth compared to others.

In June, the issue of affirmative action or “race-based admissions” came before the Supreme Court yet again. Under the guise of a group called “Students for Fair Admissions,” two cases will be heard — against Harvard and the University of North Carolina.

“All students deserve a fair shot at getting a quality education, regardless of their income, where they grew up or their racial or ethnic backgrounds. But unfortunately, while talent is everywhere in our country, opportunity is not for too many students of color who must contend with systemic and interpersonal racism that detrimentally affects their educational opportunities,” said Michaele Turnage Young, senior counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Young is representing students of color at Harvard. 

“Under 44 years of settled precedent, it is legally permissible for colleges and universities to consider race as one of many factors in admissions. Bear in mind that the Supreme Court held that quotas were impermissible back in 1978. So we’re not talking about quotas. What we are talking about is the limited consideration of race as one of 40 factors in the UNC case, and one of more than 100 factors in Harvard’s case,” said Young.

The Harvard case is the first challenge to a race conscious admissions policy involving a private college to reach the Supreme Court. But even though it is a private university, Harvard receives federal funding.

“It is important that colleges and universities continue to be allowed to consider the full context of applicants’ experiences, including the way that racism artificially depresses the prospects of many hard working talented, Black, Latinx, Native and underserved Asian American students so that everyone has a fair shot,” said Young.

Millions will be affected by the Supreme Court ruling; however, Supreme Court Justices Brett Kavanau, Amy Coney Barrett and Neil Gorsuch are expected to rule against race-based admissions despite their documented success.

“My hope is that the Supreme Court will show up for equal opportunity in the Constitution, we will see affirmative action reaffirmed as it has been with precedent, we will see the allowance of the president student loan debt cancellation, we will see this Congress commit sufficient funding to ensure access to high quality early care and education and support positive school climate strategies and move away from criminalizing approaches in schools,” said King.