The US Supreme Court on Thursday rejected racist admissions into higher education at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, overturning more legal precedent of over 40 years.
The ruling in both cases gives opponents of affirmative action a major victory. The opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, found that the admissions programs at both universities violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.
« However well-intentioned » UNC and Harvard’s policies were, Roberts wrote, universities failed to use them within the confines of the narrow restrictions allowed by previous court rulings.
Roberts also wrote that schools may still consider discussing an applicant about how race has affected their life, « whether through discrimination, inspiration or otherwise. » But not, she wrote, through a specific application essay or other means.
« This is a very jarring limitation on the ability to use race-conscious admissions policies, » says Dominique Baker, a professor of education policy at Southern Methodist University. « That’s bad. But it’s important to pay attention to the details, because those details are how we think about what institutions can do right now as they’re getting ready to start working on admissions for next year. »
In the Harvard case, the court considered whether the school discriminated against Asian American students during the admissions process. With UNC, the court considered whether the school was using race-aware admissions in an appropriately limited manner. THE conservative activist group Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) it was behind both the Harvard and UNC cases.
The ruling primarily affects a select number of colleges
There are nearly 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States, and only a small fraction — just over 200 — have highly selective admissions, where less than 50 percent of applicants enter. That’s just over 200 schools where the ruling on the race-conscious admissions process could make a significant difference.
Yet despite the number of students these policies would actually impact on a few students, what happens in these elite institutions matters.
They remain a key gatekeeper for access to high levels of government and industry. Just as an example, currently eight of the nine Supreme Court justices were in law school at Harvard or Yale.
Recently, researchers at Georgetown University ran simulations to see what would happen if race were removed from college admissions. They found that a nationwide ban would reduce the ethnic diversity of students in selective colleges unless there was « a fundamental redesign of the college admissions system, » which would include, among other things, eliminating inheritance and athletic recruitment.
In the simulations, eliminating race and relying on different combinations of high school grades, test scores, or socioeconomic indicators did not produce more ethnically diverse classes.
Zack Mabel, a Georgetown professor of education and economics and an author of the research, explained the findings this way:
« It boils down to: The more information you are able to consider about the educational opportunities and disadvantages an individual has had in their life, the better you as an admissions officer will figure out who will be a qualified applicant. »
Mabel says current admissions criteria reinforce the disparities in educational opportunity that exist in the K-12 system and that research has shown that, in highly selective colleges, « students admitted with lower grades and scores are just as likely to succeed as rest of their female classmates. »
This echoes previous research conducted in several states that banned race-informed admissions from ballot measures. These statewide bans include Michigan since 2006California since 1996 (and reaffirmed in 2020), and Washington since 1998 (and reaffirmed in 2019).
Broader implications across higher education
Experts say the court’s new decision could have implications beyond mere admissions.
« We need to think beyond just the who-gets-and-who-joins piece, » says Baker, of Southern Methodist University. The ruling could affect financial aid decisions, including targeted scholarships and campus efforts to build communities of students from diverse backgrounds.
He wonders, for example, whether a program designed to increase the number of black doctors — with support for them to complete the pre-med curriculum and enter medical school — will now be mooted.
Mitchell Chang, who studies diversity in education at UCLA, says that after state bans went into effect in Michigan, California and Washington, changes to what were once again aimed at « ethics-conscious scholarship race, race-conscious programming, conscious recruitment,” he continued.
Today’s ruling, he says, « could have a much broader scope, in fact, than admissions alone. »
OiYan Poon, a visiting education professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, points out advance filing in court by the plaintiffs in the Harvard case, by advocating ending « any use of race or ethnicity in the context of education » — not just in admissions.
But Liliana Garces, an education professor at the University of Texas at Austin, argues that today’s opinion is limited to the college admissions race — and nothing else. « The only legal issue that was before the court was the consideration of race in admissions. »
He says it is now up to universities to implement the ruling into their practices and policies. However, he believes this decision does not explicitly prohibit race-conscious decisions in other areas, such as financial aid. « It will be important for institutions to stand their ground and be able to engage in those other practices that are absolutely critical to their mission. »
Baker agrees: « We want to make sure we don’t overstate what the legal boundaries are, because that could create a chilling effect where institutions restrict themselves beyond the legal bounds. » She is particularly interested in the line in Justice Roberts’ majority opinion about how schools can still consider how race has impacted a candidate’s life.
« That tells me there are some paths forward, » Baker says. « But are these pathways the most effective ways to try to achieve greater racial equity within college admissions? No. »
Colleges have used other ways to diversify their student bodies, but they aren’t always as effective
Using race in admissions isn’t the only way states and universities have tried to diversify their incoming classes.
After California banned racist admissions in 1996, the proportions of black and Latino students at UCLA, one of the most highly selective schools in the state system, dropped dramatically. In 2006, a decade later, only 96 black students enrolled in a freshman class of nearly 5,000. They became known as « The Notorious 96 ».
The University of California has responded to these numbers by reworking its admissions policies to take a more « holistic » approach, considering several factors including whether students were the first in their family to go to college, which high school they attended and their household income. The university has spent more than 20 years and hundreds of millions of dollars on new programs and scholarships in an effort to restore that level of diversity.
Other ideas to promote campus diversity include admitting a percentage of the state’s high school students, such as the University of Texas at Austin automatically admitting Texas students in the top 6% of their high school graduating classS. Sweepstakes have also been proposed, where eligible students with high qualifications would be randomly selected for acceptance.
But so far, the researchers say, none of the alternatives have been as effective as considering race.
« Nothing is so good at helping enroll a more racially equitable class than using race. Nothing comes close to it, » says Baker. « There are other tools; other ideas. But if race isn’t taken into account, those different kinds of techniques and tools don’t replicate what race-conscious admissions policies do. »
What happens next
This opinion comes less than a decade since the high court last ruled on affirmative action. In Fisher versus University of Texas in 2016, the court ruled that the colleges I could consider race in admissions.
The two cases the court ruled on today are Students for admission fair against Harvard AND Students for Equitable Admission vs. University of North Carolina.
While very similar, the cases represent two very different admissions environments: UNC is a state school that strongly favors state students (only 18 percent of out-of-state first-year students are allowed in), while Harvard is a highly selective private school that admits less than 5% of all applicants (it’s just below 2,000 students this fall).
In amicus briefs filed in the Supreme Court prior to the arguments in these two cases, the University of Michigan and the University of California, Berkeley both admitted that their efforts to achieve their diversity goals, without using race, they fell short.
But not all schools say they’re struggling to achieve diversity without race-conscious admissions.
The Attorney General of Oklahoma filed a brief on behalf of several states in support of the plaintiffs in the two cases: « The University of Oklahoma, for example, remains just as diverse today (if not more) than it did when Oklahoma banned affirmative action in 2012. » The university’s main campus in Norman currently has one US undergraduate student student population which is approximately 60% white and 5% black.
With no race in the admissions process, Kelly Slay, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University who studies affirmative action, expects to see colleges ramp up targeted recruiting, expand financial aid including tuition-free programs, and move to test electives , in an effort to maintain their racial and ethnic diversity.
But, he says, « we have nothing that works as effectively at producing and enhancing racial diversity as race-conscious affirmative action. We have over 20 years of data and research on this. »