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The myth that all black students get a free ride is just that — a myth

Even with affirmative action or other diversity programs, black students take on twice as much debt as their white peers.

University of Chicago campus
University of Chicago campus
Getty Images

The conversation about equal access to education during the college admissions process — and the resulting bill for that education — were reignited after the New York Times reported Tuesday about a potential investigation by the Department of Justice on how affirmative action may discriminate against certain students.

A document obtained by the New York Times and circulated among the civil rights division of the US Justice Department indicates that the Trump administration is looking to shift resources, and start “investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions.”

While the New York Times report didn’t specify who the Justice Department might deem as at risk of facing discrimination based on affirmative action admissions policies, a statement from Department of Justice Director of Public Affairs Sarah Isgur Flores later indicated the case involved a “coalition of 64 Asian American associations.” The complaint, which was filed in May 2015, alleges racial discrimination against Asian Americans during the college admissions process.

According to Flores, the Justice Department is seeking volunteers to assist in the investigation.

In an academic setting, affirmative action programs have allowed students from historically disadvantaged groups — particularly women and people of color — with comparable or higher educational records as their peers extra consideration during the application process.

Despite initially vague reports, both critics and supporters of affirmative action spent yesterday debating the aim of its existence, as well as the perpetuation of the dubious myth that students who benefit from it, particularly those who are black, can go to college for little to no money.

A 2015 Gallup poll found that only 61 percent of all Americans believed higher education — or education beyond high school — “is available to anyone in America who needs it.” Not only was that number down from 67 percent in 2013, but white respondents were the least likely to believe this. They were also the least likely to think education beyond high school is affordable.

However, a 2011 analysis on data from the US Department of Education’s National Postsecondary Student Aid Study found that all racial minority students — who account for 38 percent of the total undergraduate population — receive 40 percent of need-based grant and scholarship funding and 24 percent of merit-based scholarships. Meanwhile, white students, who make up 62 percent of the total undergraduate population, receive 59 percent of need-based financial aid and 76 percent of merit-based funding.

Refinery29 senior features writer Ashley C. Ford took on this myth, calling out widespread misunderstanding of the goals and implementation of affirmative action policies.

She describes her experience working one summer as a camp counselor and having to confront white peers who believed people who weren’t white got into college for free, or worse, paid “up front” before being reimbursed. Ford mentions that when she asked where they got that information from, most pointed to their white family and community members.

Ford’s tweets touch on how widely accepted and deeply culturally entrenched the myth is, but only scrape at the surface of how the data doesn’t match the myth. A report released in 2016 by the Brookings Institution found that “the moment” black students earn their bachelor’s degrees, they owe on average $7,400 more in student loan debt than their white peers. That figure includes nonborrowers.

Once they graduate, and taking into account differences in interest accrual and graduate school borrowing, “Black graduates [hold] nearly $53,000 in student loan debt four years after graduation — almost twice as much as their white counterparts,” according to the analysis.

The New York Times initially reported that both supporters and critics saw the department’s move as targeting admissions programs that adhere to the policy and assist otherwise disadvantaged students with achieving access to higher education. Despite the involvement of Asian-American organizations, that claim still holds up.

In a Washington Post op-ed published Thursday, law professors Nancy Leong and Erwin Chemerinsky argue that the administration may be using another belief — that Asian Americans are harmed by affirmative action — to undermine the policy.

“The argument that affirmative action harms Asian American people is simply inaccurate,” Leong and Chemerinsky write. “And worse, the argument is strategic rather than motivated by real concern for the well-being of Asian Americans.”

Leong and Chemerinsky continue:

“By framing opposition to affirmative action as concern for Asian Americans, opponents of affirmative action can protect the existing racial hierarchy — with white people at the top — while disguising their efforts as race-neutral rather than racially motivated.”

While questions still remain regarding the complaint, as well as the intent of both the Trump administration and its Justice Department, one thing is clear: Myths probably shouldn’t influence federal initiatives.