The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

The time has come to face up to a troubling fact: Affirmative action is a policy designed to affect access to higher education, but many colleges have never sufficiently addressed their role in preparing students for a successful transition to life in college or gone beyond a laissez-faire approach to providing supports once they get in.

After the Supreme Court issues its long-awaited decisions this month, observers expect that the long-held practice of considering race as a factor in college admissions will be severely curtailed, or perhaps outlawed entirely, as it is already in nine U.S. states.

That’s why colleges and universities must double down on their commitment not only to access but also to inclusion, engagement, mentorship and community-building. If education leaders wish to fulfill their commitment to equity in a post-affirmative action world, they will need strategies that go “to and through” the admissions process and make serious strides to improve the campus experience for all students — especially for students whose identities or experiences as racial or cultural minorities, first-generation college students or members of low- or moderate-income families and communities differ from the assumed and often unspoken norms of their new college communities.

First-generation and many historically underrepresented students have long had to overcome much higher barriers than their wealthier peers at nearly every step along the route to a college degree. For example, from the beginning of their college search, most have far more limited resources to help them navigate the application process, including less access to guidance and support from advisers; that lack is usually not erased once they arrive on campus.

I saw this firsthand during my time in student affairs at Stanford University. The country club-like environment of the elite institution was unfamiliar to many low-income and historically underrepresented students. Only one group — college athletes — was an exception in being provided with meticulously curated support.

From the moment they arrived, Stanford’s varsity athletes had highly structured schedules, clear and established expectations and regular engagement with a network of peers and mentors who helped them stay on track both in and out of the classroom.

As a result, student-athletes often graduated at a rate that exceeded the graduation rate for all students. Stanford did so much to support them that it would have taken extraordinary circumstances for them not to have graduated.

I have often wondered what would happen if every campus was designed to provide the same level of structure and support for first-generation students and those from under-resourced communities (like myself) — who have even less access to rigorous high school courses that ease the transition to college, and who, once accepted, are more likely to struggle with complex paperwork and deposit requirements that lead to so-called summer melt.

Through my work as a student affairs leader, I sought to establish student-athlete-level support networks for first-generation college students, students of color, transfer students and those from families with lower incomes.

The so-called end of affirmative action in college admissions cannot be an end to our nation’s continued work to ensure that students who work hard, play by the rules and aspire to secure a degree have the opportunity to do so.

There are far too many unwritten rules and expectations that can cause first-generation college students and others to feel like outsiders, or at least question their status as aspiring insiders, at the very time they most need to establish a genuine sense of belonging.

When they arrive on campus, many under-resourced students encounter a gap between their prior academic experiences and the planning, study and time management skills demanded at the college level. They also lack the self-advocacy skills necessary to navigate their new environments.

In addition, they are more likely to be juggling work and/or family commitments that take time away from their studies and make it more difficult to participate in extracurricular activities, study-abroad programs or career-linked learning experiences or internships. This can be a particular challenge for commuter students who spend limited time on campus.

It should come as no surprise that first-generation college students and Black, Indigenous and Latino students continue to graduate at much lower rates than their white peers and are at greater risk of being saddled with education debt but no degree.

Related: The college degree gap between Black and white Americans was always bad. It’s getting worse

These issues have been present long enough that we should acknowledge them as features of a flawed system that needs a significant update.

If there’s any silver lining here, it is that colleges and universities already know what works.

Technological advances — simple ones like videoconferencing and text messaging — are enabling colleges to reach more students faster and provide a personalized level of engagement that is critical to helping students succeed.

One recent study of the nonprofit Matriculate found that its near-peer advising, even in virtual settings, can significantly improve students’ chances of attending and persisting at high-quality colleges. More of these programs are needed.

Research also shows that institutions that help students gain a sense of belonging to a community and help them access support systems to navigate the college experience will see improved persistence, graduation and overall success in college and afterward. Currently, these benefits are more readily available to students from higher-income families, who often learn how to navigate the landscape of higher education well before they arrive on campus.

Each campus has an invisible cultural system that is familiar to some and unfamiliar and potentially inhospitable to others. And if a college education is about opening the doors of opportunity, that journey should not begin with students encountering unlabeled or locked doors.

First-generation, lower-income and historically underrepresented students can and will succeed when they are provided the advice and support already available to so many of their wealthier classmates and athletically gifted peers — because students from all backgrounds stand to gain from a stronger support network.

The so-called end of affirmative action in college admissions cannot be an end to our nation’s continued work to ensure that students who work hard, play by the rules and aspire to secure a degree have the opportunity to do so.

Instead, it can — and should — drive colleges and universities to do better by more of their students, and to partner more effectively with school and nonprofit allies to ensure that students with the will to succeed have a way to do so.

Jim Larimore is a consultant, strategic adviser and co-founder and chair of EdSAFE AI Alliance, a global network advocating for the safe, equitable use of AI in education. He is a board member of Matriculate.

This story about the potential end of affirmative action was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *