Having Coffee With...Anna Haskins: A turning point for college admissions

This story was originally published by Margaret Fosmoe ’85 for the Autumn 2023 edition of Notre Dame Magazine.

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Photo by Barbara Johnston

Anna Haskins recalls the precise moment in June when she heard about the Supreme Court ruling that effectively ended affirmative action for college admissions.

“Did I expect it? Yes. But I was still surprised and crestfallen,” says Haskins, the Andrew V. Tackes Associate Professor of Sociology and associate director of Notre Dame’s Initiative on Race and Resilience. The decision means colleges and universities cannot factor applicants’ race into admission decisions and leaves institutions to look for new ways to achieve racial diversity in their student bodies — or to abandon diversity as an ideal.

“I was not expecting them to do anything different,” Haskins said of the court. “And yet I was hopeful. I truly was hopeful, because I think we still need it.”

Haskins said that a Supreme Court ruling earlier in June — which reaffirmed the section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that concerns redistricting and protections for the voting rights of minority groups — had given her hope the court might uphold affirmative action.

Despite her disappointment, Haskins says the rulings open an opportunity for universities to demonstrate what is important to them. “We will see over the next two to five to 10 years, I hope, some deep thinking about the direction universities want their student bodies and themselves to go. It really is a turning point for institutions,” she says.

Haskins’ research focuses on how three core social institutions — the family and the education and criminal justice systems — affect social inequality, particularly in terms of educational outcomes, intergenerational impacts and disparities across racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Extensive research shows that where one attends college has major implications for the rest of one’s life: job opportunities, income, marriage partner, health, happiness and the lives of one’s children, Haskins says. “This is a big deal and it has ramifications across generations,” she says.

Education is a tool that can ameliorate inequality, but it may also exacerbate inequality, an observation she makes in part from direct personal experience.

Haskins grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and earned a teaching degree at the University of Michigan. She taught at a public elementary school in Wisconsin for three years before earning master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Wisconsin.

“I really love teaching,” she says. “I really believe in it as a very powerful tool to make change.”

She also knows firsthand how educational opportunities that open up for one generation influence the lives of future generations. As a Black teenager from Detroit, her father was selected for a program that made him one of the first minority students to attend a certain elite East Coast boarding school.

He didn’t have a welcoming experience, but he soon became the first person in his family to go to college, earning a bachelor’s degree at Wesleyan University and a master’s degree at Michigan.

“I truly believe that those opportunities set us on a trajectory — my brothers and I — to be successful,” Haskins says.

Her father raised Haskins and her brothers on his own. The family wasn’t well off, but they always had plenty of books in the house, and education was a priority, she says.

She is optimistic by nature: “You have to feel like things will bend towards justice and we need to keep working.”

She reflects on the implications of the court’s landmark, 6-3 ruling, in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard and a related case, for race and educational opportunity. “If we didn’t have racial discrimination, if we didn’t have a history of inequality — particularly against African Americans, indigenous folks, as well as other groups of color — then I’d be like, eh, this doesn’t matter,” Haskins says. “If we were post-racial, then this decision wouldn’t matter. We are not, in my view as a social scientist.”

By “post-racial,” she means an American society in which race isn’t a salient factor in decision-making, opportunities and outcomes. “Some people think we are [post-racial]. I think the Supreme Court justices — some of them — might think that this isn’t necessary anymore,” she says.

“I do not think we’re in a position where people get access to opportunity equally by race. I also don’t think that that happens by gender. And I also think that doesn’t happen by class yet, either. In a world where [education] is important for equal distribution of opportunities and resources, we are still stratified by race.”

For the immediate future, the ruling means people of color will have less access to opportunity, Haskins says. “If we eliminate opportunities to overcome the historical racism that we have in our country through these avenues of advancement, then we are going to move backwards.”

Before the ruling, nine states had banned affirmative action policies in higher education, including Michigan in 2006. The year before that ban, the University of Michigan reported 7 percent enrollment of African American students. By 2021, that percentage fell to 4 percent, Haskins points out, despite the university’s major efforts to attract African American students by sending alumni to work as counselors in low-income high schools and offering full scholarships to certain low-income state residents.

She now expects to see minority enrollment declines at selective colleges and universities across the country. “When we think about the places that society still deems as hierarchically the most valuable, which then give you opportunities to climb the mobility ladder, then yes, I think that that’s what we’ll see,” she says.

Universities must decide what’s important to them, the professor says. “And some will say, ‘Diversity was really never important. We were just doing it because we had to. And now we don’t have to do it.’”

Notre Dame has said that its student body should reflect the increasing global diversity of the Catholic Church and that racial diversity is crucial for realizing its Catholic mission. It was among 57 Catholic colleges and universities that in 2022 filed an amicus brief in support of affirmative action in college admissions in connection with the cases that were then heading to the high court.

“Catholic teachings emphasize the dignity of each individual and the importance of service to the underrepresented,” the schools wrote. “The education that students receive in a diverse environment, including a racially diverse environment, serves Catholic values of respect for universal human dignity and divine creation, and in turn creates alumni equipped to contribute to Catholic goals of leadership in service.”

Notre Dame’s undergraduate student body in fall 2022 was 63 percent white, 13 percent Latino, 6 percent multiracial, 6 percent Asian and 4 percent Black, with the remainder mostly representing non-U.S. residents.

Haskins isn’t formally involved in the University’s enrollment policies and longstanding efforts to attract a more diverse student population. She’ll be watching as the University and other highly selective colleges rework their admission plans now that affirmative action is off the table.

Need-based admissions policies on their own aren’t necessarily the answer. The goal of racial diversity in college admissions doesn’t fully overlap with that of economic diversity, Haskins notes. Poor white people outnumber poor Black people in the United States. If college admissions are determined entirely on an income basis, colleges could become less diverse racially, she says.

The court rulings give universities the chance to think deeply about the types of students they want to uplift, support, walk alongside, teach and learn from, she adds.

Through it all, she expects to retain her strong optimism. “You have to,” she says. “How do you keep on living in this world if you don’t have hope?”

Margaret Fosmoe is an associate editor of this magazine.