You Think These Recent SCOTUS Cases Are Just The Biggest Thing, They’re Actually Sideshows For Most Of The People You Purport To Care About

I was overseas for a few weeks, and it seemed like a good time to be away. The end of June has become sort of unpleasant if you work in or around public policy because the Supreme Court is now just one more place where everyone has a predictable partisan rooting interest.

The United States Supreme Court in a peaceful moment
Source: Wikimedia

On the student loan case I don’t have any big take beyond what I wrote a while ago before the Biden policy was enacted. From where I sit there is a strong case on the merits to forgive modest amounts of debt for low-income borrowers. This would clear a lot of cases (a third) and target many of those who may have been misled by schools – beyond a lot of what’s being done on that issue already. It was also politically palatable in a country where most people still don’t have college degrees. Instead, we got a massive wealth transfer to economic winners (college educated, often elite Americans) from the public at large and a whole new set of moral hazards and perverse incentives around college finance. The numbers were hard to defend and the kind of thing Democrats used to be against. Meanwhile, if Donald Trump had proposed this kind of exercise of executive power people would have, rightly, flipped out. In fact, until it became a Biden policy a lot of Democrats held that view. Also, it wouldn’t kill Congress to write laws a little tighter. And, like DACA, Congress could do something about this issue if it were inclined to. All that said, the issue is an obsession in our sector because we work in a pretty elite and college obsessed sector and it fits lots of people’s narrative about the court.

That brings us to affirmative action. I wrote on the issue when the court heard the arguments and my take is roughly the same. There is an opportunity here to do better, but neither the political left or the right is honest about either affirmative action as a policy or the context surrounding it. Higher education leaders offer an incoherent defense that caught up with them in this case. It’s an unfair policy, as the Harvard case in particular highlighted, but American life is unfair, too. The education system is set up in a structurally unfair way – especially against Black and poor people. Who gets into elite schools is a marginal issue because most people don’t go to college, if they do they go schools that take everyone or almost everyone. At the same time, who gets in also matters to American life. Reasonable people can disagree.

So, it’s not an especially satisfying issue that’s made worse by the way it’s treated more as an exercise in signaling than grappling with complicated issues or the actual arguments. It was hard to miss all the people and organizations that just recently couldn’t say enough about anti-Asian hate or structural discrimination suddenly oblivious that there might be any issues at all with this policy. In a larger sense that has political implications. In our sector it meant that there were not just people on one side of this debate wondering, ‘wait, what about us?’ in the wake of the ruling.

Here are a few essays I read about the case that could be worth your time if you want to get beyond the statements and virtue signaling and into the messiness of this policy, which really wasn’t doing what it was advertised to do anyway and was quite unpopular, and not even especially popular among its intended beneficiaries.

Freddie deBoer looked at the issue with the broader contours of American life in mind. This is an issue that animated the leadership of our sector, because the leadership of our sector is elite. Like Springsteen’s rich man in a poor man’s shirt people try to fuzzy that up but the reaction to the case acutely underscored it. I don’t agree with deBoer’s Cult of Smart take, but much of this seems on point to me.

Laura McKenna looked at some of the same issues. Tracing Woodgrains dove deep on what Harvard means and why. And Jay Caspian Kang did what too few wanted to, get past the talking points and actually look squarely at what was happening and if it was tenable. With both loans and affirmative action we might ask if overreach is a culprit here?

The invaluable Tony Carnevale looked at the possible impact and remedies. Though as I wrote I expect this case, despite John Roberts’ clear admonition in the ruling, to be somewhat ignored at elite schools and possibly create some weird byproducts. Coleman Hughes on some of the same issues.

For our sector this should be an enormous ‘what now?’ moment.

But no. It’s hard to miss the discorporate amount of energy that is now spent arguing about what to do at the end of broken pipelines rather than what we need to do to fix things. The debate about selective high school and selective college admissions share that unfortunate feature. In terms of access to opportunity in American life the NWEA scores that recently came out, the ongoing catastrophe NAEP highlights, and other data about achievement, especially post-pandemic, should command far more attention and focus. Especially in relation to debates about where a fraction of a fraction of students will go to college or the financing of that education.