Clark Atlanta president says why affirmative action ban presents 'opportunity' for HBCUs

Dr. George French spoke to ABC News' Phil Lipof.

July 6, 2023, 2:26 PM

The president of Clark Atlanta University is disappointed by the Supreme Court decision to end the use of race as a main factor in college admissions but he also views it as an opportunity for historically Black colleges and universities.

It’s been one week since the Supreme Court ended the use of affirmative action in college admissions decisions. The court held, in a 6-3 opinion for the conservative majority written by Chief Justice John Roberts, that Harvard and the University of North Carolina's admissions programs violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

The following day, the Supreme Court struck down the Biden administration’s program to forgive student loan debt for more than 43 million American borrowers. In a 6-3 decision, also written by Roberts, the court ruled the Department of Education exceeded its authority when it moved to wipe out more than $400 billion in federal student loan debt.

Dr. George French, president of Clark Atlanta University, spoke to ABC News' Phil Lipof about the reaction to the decisions among historically Black colleges and universities [HBCUs] and why he believes it provides both an opportunity and challenge for HBCUs to provide access to education to minorities for those who otherwise would not have it.

George French, president of Clark Atlanta University, is shown during an interview with ABC News Live.
ABC News

ABC NEWS LIVE: Dr. French, you've led HBCUs for the past 20 years, and you went out and released a statement last week expressing your disappointment in the court's decision, but also noting that the potential opportunity for HBCUs is there. Can you explain to us what you mean by that?

FRENCH: There is a large degree of disappointment within the HBCU constituency, and that is because this decision was intentionally, appears to be intentional, in eroding what was an effective remedy for racial disparities in our nation. So we're upset about it, but at the same time, we understand that this provides an opportunity for HBCUs to provide access to education for those who otherwise would not have it.

ABC NEWS LIVE: Well, we've seen the data, and I'm sure you have too, in the states that have already ended the use of affirmative action in admissions, with major declines in Black student enrollment in states like California. So how concerned are you that we are going to see that mirrored across the nation?

FRENCH: We know that it was about half – minority enrollment, in those states, decreased by half, which is significant. Given that those were those data that we bear out now, we can anticipate a precipitous decline in PWI [predominantly white institution] enrollment going forward. What does that mean? That means that we need additional resources, as the HBCU community, to meet the needs of those students. Not just financial, but programmatic. For example, if you come to an HBCU for one of our traditional disciplines – law, medicine, education – that's one thing. But if you come for thermonuclear science, we don't have that capacity. So when our minorities are turned away from PWIs, based on this decision, they will have nowhere to go, unless we build the capacity at HBCUs.

ABC NEWS LIVE: As we move on with the discussion, I want to talk about what kinds of tools and practices you think colleges should follow, use moving forward to maintain a diverse student body? And are you optimistic that can happen?

The U.S. Supreme Court, June 27, 2023, in Washington.
Mariam Zuhaib/AP

FRENCH: Yes, very optimistic. As a matter of fact, Phil, I think when we put it into perspective, we consider that this is not pre-May 17, 1954, Brown v. Board, but this is post. Pre Board, you had universities and colleges who were trying to deny access to minorities. That's not the case today. Today, I have to compete with Georgia Tech, Georgia State, Harvard, Yale, Columbia. I have to compete with all of these institutions with the best and the brightest minorities. So it's not a question of fighting against those institutions.

ABC NEWS LIVE: And sir, on the court's other decision Friday, blocking the Biden administration’s student loan forgiveness plan, what kind of impact do you think that's going to have on recent graduates, especially for minorities who have historically faced more loan debt?

FRENCH: This is a much larger issue. It's an issue that will affect the United States economy. We had an opportunity to eliminate debt of 21 million graduates and those who no longer are attending university are totally eliminated. That would allow them to purchase houses, to solidify their wealth program and plan as a family. So now they'll have to go back and figure out how to pay off these loans. And make note, one third of all those who are in repayment programs, one third of those do not have a degree. But now they had student loan debt with no degree. That is a problem for our economy.

ABC NEWS LIVE: ABC News recently spoke to some high school seniors who are talking about their future. Some of them had to redirect their future, because of the price of college. One student said to us, and remember, this is a high school senior, “You can ruin your financial life at 18, but you can't buy a beer.” So what would you say to students who look at the current landscape and wonder whether the cost of college is actually worth it at all?

FRENCH: I would say, first of all, if you think that the cost of education is high, consider the cost of ignorance. I assure you that the college education remains the main vehicle of social mobility for generations. It's tested, tried and true – HBCUs like Clark Atlanta University. We've been here since 1865. We have educated so many hundreds of thousands of students who have taken their families from one level of wealth to the next.

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