The Supreme Court’s June 29, 2023 decision to eliminate affirmative action will have substantial effects that go far beyond college admissions. That’s because college attendance, and, especially, attendance at an elite college, can open doors to positions of importance throughout American society. The decision will not only affect the way admissions work at colleges and universities throughout the country, but it will place a new spotlight on the programs that feed into the college admissions process.

One of these programs, A Better Chance (ABC), was founded in 1963 by three New England prep school headmasters. They sought to integrate prep schools but they also hoped to provide pathways to the elite colleges and universities, to open up pathways to positions of importance and influence.

The three headmasters who founded ABC had connections to major foundations through the parents of their students and their own class backgrounds (one of the three, Charles Merrill, was a liberal descendant of the family that founded Merrill-Lynch). Their goal for the ABC program, which will be celebrating its 60th anniversary in October of 2023, was to integrate promising young minority students (almost all of whom were of African descent) into the mostly lily-white prep schools and provide the educational, social, and cultural capital that could lead them to important positions of leadership in the power elite (though the headmasters did not use that term). 

Consider the following three examples of African American ABC graduates. When Enrique Tarrio, one of the four leaders of the Proud Boys was convicted of seditious conspiracy for his actions in the January 6th attack on the Capitol, the judge who sentenced him to prison was Harold Cushenberry, an ABC graduate of the Taft School, an elite prep school in Connecticut, and later Harvard College (1972) and Georgetown Law School (1975). Michele Roberts who served as the director of the NBA players’ association from 2014 to 2022, was an ABC student at the Masters School, an elite prep school in Dobbs Ferry, NY. She then attended Wesleyan University (1977) and the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law (1980). Robert Reffkin, an investment banker whose tech start-up is worth billions and who is now the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, was also an ABC student at the prestigious and costly San Francisco University High School (2023 tuition is $56,570 a year). He then went east to Columbia University for a BA (2000) and an MBA (2003). 

If affirmative action programs are thought of as positive steps in response to unfair barriers to equal opportunity, then ABC was an independent non-profit affirmative action program designed to further the participation of African Americans in the country’s most prestigious secondary schools, colleges, and universities – a key step in achieving greater opportunities throughout the workforce. By now, more than 18,000 have gone to prep schools and excellent public schools through the ABC program, and many, like Cushenberry, Roberts, and Reffkin, went on to attend elite colleges and universities. During the first 35 years of the program, most ABC graduates attended the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, Columbia, Brown, and Wesleyan. Deval Patrick, the former Governor of Massachusetts (Milton Academy, Harvard, 1978, and Harvard Law School, 1982), and Tracy Chapman (Wooster School, and Tufts, 1986) are among the best-known graduates of the ABC program. As my decades of tracking the careers of these students reveal, their overall success in all walks of life demonstrates what is possible for students from low-income families of all races, creeds, and colors if they are provided with the same educational opportunities as the sons and daughters of the white elite at an early age. 

Even if we assume that most ABC students who went to elite colleges were academically accomplished, it is likely that some would not have been accepted by the prestigious schools they attended were it not for affirmative action. In one interview, Robert Reffkin, the Fortune 500 CEO whose degrees are from Columbia University, described himself in the following way: “In high school and college, I was a C-student in part because I didn’t see how studying calculus or Western Civilization related to my life or my dreams”. Reffkin may have been an exception. We have no way of knowing. It is quite clear, however, that despite periodic claims to the contrary, degrees from elite schools increased the chances that they would rise to the top in their respective professions (see Zweigenhaft, July 2023). 

When Lyndon Johnson signed the Executive Order in 1965 that ushered in almost 60 years of affirmative action in various spheres, including higher education, the fledgling ABC program was in its second year and still quite small. However, thanks to a further financial boost from the federal government’s Office of Economic Opportunity (a four-year grant of $10 million), the program was able to expand dramatically, from 49 students in 1964 to 430 students in 1966. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, when elite colleges sought to diversify their student bodies (according to the Dean of Admissions at one elite college, the search for Black students was “the fiercest competition for any group of students in the history of higher education”), ABC provided a valuable conduit. If students could succeed, or at least survive, at the Taft School or the Masters School, the admissions officers at many colleges concluded that they could probably make it at their schools. Moreover, ABC had the mechanisms in place to find promising students, whereas most admissions departments at elite schools had few if any contacts in the urban and rural communities that ABC drew from. 

The successful efforts by ABC and its funders in graduating thousands of well-educated young adults were subsequently supplemented by several similar foundation-funded nonprofits that followed in ABC’s footsteps, such as Prep for Prep in New York City, the Black Student Fund in Washington, D.C., and Steppingstone in Boston. However, the obstacles created in the decades after the Civil War still hinder the progress of young Americans with darker skin. When Reffkin’s company joined the Fortune 500 in 2021, he became one of only four African American Fortune 500 CEOs—the same number that there had been in 2003. (The peak number of African American Fortune 500 CEOs was eight in 2009; the number then declined over the next 12 years, so that there were only three when Reffkin’s company joined the Fortune 500 in 2021). 

Furthermore, a detailed study of the number of African Americans in the top three positions just below the CEO level found that only 3% were African American (that is, those on what are often called “leadership teams”). The future of corporate America, therefore, does not seem to be one of diversity and inclusion for all qualified employees, contrary to white nationalist claims about “woke” corporations. 

The wording in the June 2023 Supreme Court decision that eliminated affirmative action seems to have left some wiggle room for schools to continue their efforts to maintain, or increase, diversity. But even if schools figure out ways to do so by using class instead of race in their admissions decisions, or placing a higher value on the essays that students write as part of their applications, or eliminating advantages to legacy students (most of whom are white), as some schools have done, and even if the federal government were to help by providing additional money for Pell Grants allowing more low-income students to attend college, the number of Black students is likely to decline. I, therefore, agree with the conclusion Jerome Karabel reached in a New York Times op-ed piece published shortly after the Supreme Court’s decision: “Affirmative action’s elimination is a monumental setback for racial justice.” 

As Karabel goes on to say, it is “most likely to lead to a substantial decline in racial and ethnic diversity at our leading colleges and over time will narrow the pipeline that has led to a more diverse — and representative — leadership class…” Although no one can be sure what the outcome of the court’s decision will be, Karabel bases his concerns about likely declines in African American and Hispanic students on what took place at both the University of Michigan and the University of California, Berkeley, after those two schools no longer could pursue race-conscious admission policies. In 1996, California passed Proposition 209, a ballot initiative that banned affirmative action in public higher education.  The two most elite campuses in the University of California system, Berkeley and UCLA, saw a subsequent drop of 40 percent in Black and Latino student enrollment.  Similarly, in 2006 Michigan passed a proposal (Proposal 2) that banned race-conscious admissions in its public schools. Black undergraduate enrollment subsequently dropped by almost half at the University of Michigan (from 7 percent in 2006 to 4 percent in 2021). 

 As Karabel also points out, affirmative action was initially intended to be a stopgap measure to address a much deeper set of problems, and a much more ambitious agenda was needed. Although programs like ABC and policies like affirmative action did keep some non-white men and women moving through the pipeline to the power elite, my data on Fortune-level CEOs shows that it was white women, along with men and women born and educated in India, who continued to make steady progress to the top over the last 20 years. but those in other groups, and especially African Americans, have seen their numbers increase much more slowly, if at all. 

In December 2000, 96.2% of the Fortune 500 CEOs were white men (only two white women were Fortune 500 CEOs in 2000, so the figure for white men combined with white women was virtually the same, at 96.6%). Twenty-one years later, in December 2021, 85.6% of the Fortune 500 CEOs were white men, and 7.6% were white women, so the combined figure for whites was 93.2%. Therefore, although the number of white Fortune 500 CEOs has decreased slightly over the past 20 years, from 96.6% to 93.2%, the vast majority of Fortune 500 CEOs are still white. My research into the class backgrounds of these CEOs indicates that for all groups except African Americans, both those born in the USA and those born abroad, about two-thirds are from upper-middle or upper-class backgrounds. 

The 60-year battle that white supremacists have waged against affirmative action is a reminder that class and racial barriers are still strong, and the rejection of affirmative action by the Supreme Court has strengthened those barriers. Hopefully, programs such as A Better Chance will continue to play an important role in helping students from underrepresented backgrounds attend good colleges. They can continue to provide colleges and universities with well-prepared students from minority backgrounds who are also from families with limited economic means. Therefore, if the elite schools genuinely want to maintain or increase diversity on their campuses, if they rely on socioeconomic criteria rather than race-based criteria, and if the corporations and the corporate foundations are serious about diversity, then ABC and similar programs could become even more important than they have been in the past. If schools, corporations, and corporate foundations are not serious about diversity, then ABC’s importance could diminish. Whatever the role of ABC is in the future, the many successes of ABC graduates over the years serve as beacons that should remind all Americans that people with darker skin can succeed at the highest levels of business, academia, and government when they have the same educational opportunities that white supremacists want to deny them. 

References and Additional Reading

References List

Additional Reading

  • Cary Lorene (1991) Black Ice. New York:  Knopf.  This memoir describes the author’s experiences as the second African American female student to attend St. Paul’s (she graduated in 1974), as a student at the University of Pennsylvania, and as an alumna who returned to teach at St. Paul’s. 
  • Patricia Zita Krisch (2015) A House Alive with Words:  Stories from the ABC Program, A Path to College for Inner-city Youth.  Philadelphia: Deason Press.  A small portion of the ABC programs have taken in place in upscale public schools, often in college towns.  This is an inside view of one of ABC’s public school programs.
  • Charlisse Lyles (1994)  Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?  From the Projects to Prep School.  Boston:  Faber and Faber.  A coming-of-age memoir about the author leaving the public schools in the mid-1970s to attend Hawken, an elite Cleveland prep school, as an ABC student, and then Smith College. 
  • Deval Patrick (2011)  A Reason to Believe:  Lessons from an Improbable Life.  New York: Broadway. The former Governor of Massachusetts and Presidential candidate recounts his experience as an ABC student at Milton Academy (1974), his education at Harvard, and his career in business and politics.
  • Richard Zweigenhaft and G. William Domhoff (2003) Blacks in the White Elite:  Will the Progress Continue?  Lanham, MD:  Rowman & Littlefield.  The second edition of an interview study of ABC graduates included two sets of interviews, twelve years apart, with men and women who were ABC students in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  This social-psychological look at their experiences in prep school, college, and their careers explores the complex interactions of class, race, and gender.

Richie Zweigenhaft, Charles A. Dana Professor of Psychology, Emeritus, at Guilford College has authored and co-authored numerous books about diversity in the power elite, and recently published GEEZERBALL: North Carolina Basketball at its Eldest (Sort of a Memoir). and Jews, Palestinians, and Friends: 45 Years at a Quaker College (Sort of a Memoir).