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Supreme Court overturns legal precedent on college affirmative action programs: NPR

The Supreme Court on Thursday rejected racist admissions at Harvard and the University of North Carolina. What does this mean for colleges and students in perspective?


With the heated discussion of a Supreme Court ruling, we have some preliminary answers about how that ruling affects college admissions.


A majority of the court rejected policies crafted at Harvard and the University of North Carolina. Both elite schools have considered race as a factor in the admissions process. The ruling says it violates the Constitution’s requirement for equal treatment regardless of race. The dissenters argued that the Constitution promises equality and that it was right for schools to act on that promise.

INSKEEP: NPR’s Elissa Nadworny is here. Good morning.


INSKEEP: First, how did the court explain its ruling?

NADWORNY: So Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion and said that, as well-intentioned as the policies of UNC and Harvard were, they failed to utilize race within the narrow confines of what the Constitution permits. He left the door open, writing that schools might consider discussing a question about how race has affected his life. I spoke to Sarah Parshall Perry about it. She is a senior legal researcher at the Heritage Foundation who was encouraged by the decision.

SARAH PARSHALL PERRY: The court is clear that universities may consider an applicant’s discussion of how race has affected their individual lives, but we will no longer see individuals who check a box or are subject to the quota system of a college or university.

NADWORNY: So universities don’t really have quotas, but Harvard used a points system to assess student identity.

INSKEEP: And that’s the thing the court says is wrong. Now, if you’ve had an individual experience with the race you want to talk about in your application, you can, but you no longer get credit, the court says, for being a member of a so-called group. What are college and admissions professionals saying about all of this?

NADWORNY: So while it was expected, it’s a major blow to busy colleges on different campuses. I spoke to Angel Perez. He directs the National Association of College Admissions Counseling.

ANGEL PEREZ: Today’s decision will make it much more difficult and much more expensive for higher education institutions and admissions officials to bring in a different class.

NADWORNY: It means the University of California. There, it took decades, a complete admissions redesign, and hundreds of millions of dollars to try and get those numbers back on diversity after the state’s ban on affirmative action in the late 1990s. He says most states, most colleges don’t have that kind of money or political will.

INSKEEP: This is an interesting point because you’re telling me that universities, in response to this, are not saying we’re abandoning diversity. They’re saying we’re going to try to achieve diversity some other way. Does this apply to all universities?

NADWORNY: Well, it’s a national ruling, but most schools are open access. Think community college, lots of, you know, four-year public schools. Only a small fraction, about 200, have highly selective admissions where this decision would apply. But what happens in elite institutions matters. They are the guardians of power in America. Take the Supreme Court justices. Currently, eight of the nine have attended law school at Harvard or Yale.

INSKEEP: What does this mean for high school students who may be applying to college soon?

NADWORNY: I spoke to Sanjay Mitchell. He is a longtime high school counselor in Washington, DC. He has already worked with students to reframe their essays to touch on their lived experience. But he says this whole thing has caused a lot of anxiety.

SANJAY MITCHELL: So students ask questions like, well, doesn’t my identity matter anymore? Does this now mean we will be relegated to HBCUs only? And those are at least the thoughtful answers. So the other kind of response that we’re hearing is, well, I guess they really don’t want us to go to college. You know, well, they always say college isn’t for everyone.

INSKEEP: HBCU, historically black colleges and universities. What can colleges within the law do now to improve diversity?

NADWORNY: We can expect more focus on that essay, recruiting, expanding financial aid, including free college programs, and colleges could become electives. But, you know, time and time again, research has shown that nothing is as effective at creating a racially diverse student body as considering race.

INSKEEP: NPR’s Elissa Nadworny, thank you very much.

DWORNY: You bet.

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