The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that college admissions can no longer specifically take race into account as a basis for admission, a decision that will now put limits on affirmative action programs across the country.
The landmark decision, which alters about 45 years of race-conscious legal precedent, sided with Students for Fair Admissions, a conservative group that sued Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, arguing that the schools’ admission policies discriminated against white and Asian students.
”We have never permitted admissions programs to work in that way, and we will not do so today,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority opinion, adding that the universities’ affirmative action admission policies violated the fourteenth amendment and involved racial stereotyping.
However, the ruling notes that college admissions can still assess how race has affected an applicant’s life, “so long as that discussion is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability that the particular applicant can contribute to the university.”
Here’s what the decision means for college applicants.
Major overhaul in admissions processes
Prior to Thursday’s ruling, just over a hundred colleges and universities around the country, mainly high-ranking and elite institutions, considered race in their admissions. The decision will force these colleges and universities to recreate their admission systems.
Alvin Tillery, a Northwestern University political science professor, explains that it’s unclear if the trend will be to prioritize diversity through other methods or not, but he’s optimistic. “Affirmative action was never a requirement of any law, which is why it was so easy to strike down,” Tillery says. “It’s not part of Title VII, it was never viewed as any kind of anti-discrimination work. Schools were doing this because they believed in the mission.”
Some experts argue that other diversity initiatives don’t work as well as affirmative action, however. The University of California system eliminated affirmative action in 1995. By 1998, the number of Black and Latino students accepted at Berkeley and UCLA were cut almost in half, according to the L.A. Times.
“I would hope that the schools predicted the outcome of today’s decision and have already been preparing for this possibility,” Victor Goode, a law professor at the City University of New York who’s practiced in the area of affirmative action, says. “I think that there will probably be different models used by different schools.”
UCLA and the University of Michigan, two major schools in states that have outlawed race-conscious admissions, argue that the millions of dollars they spent on alternative diversity programs have not yielded substantial results.
Impact on minority applicants
Affirmative action policies for higher learning institutions emerged in the 1960s as a popular method to combat racial inequality. Socioeconomic inequality, systemic racism, and inequity in K-12 education have contributed to BIPOC exclusion and underrepresentation in colleges and universities, research shows, and affirmative action has contributed to the rise in minority students enrollment, experts say. Experts fear that progress may be at-risk with affirmative action gutted.
The average gap between Black and white student graduation rates at the top dozen public universities without affirmative action was 10.1% in 2020, the University of California Los Angeles found. By contrast, the gap was 6% at the top dozen public universities that used affirmative action.
“They’re saying that race can’t be used at all, but what they’re really saying is it can’t be used for Black, brown, and poor Asian kids,” Tillery says.
“Race is going to be used for white kids. It already is because of legacy admissions,” Tillery adds. “If all of these schools were segregated, until the middle of the 1970s, and you’re admitting someone because their grandfather and father went to that university, that is a racialized benefit.”
The holistic approach many colleges and universities take today reviews all aspects of an applicant, such as their grade point average, test scores, extracurriculars, and personal essays. The essay portion in particular gives applicants a chance to share their life circumstances and hardships.
Even after the ruling, “if a student of color writes an essay about experience with discrimination, the essay may be given ‘more points,’ without a specific reference to race,” Goode says. But Goode explains that he can see the essay loophole being challenged in court, continuing the trend away from race-conscious admissions.
White House response
After the decision was released, President Joe Biden announced that the Department of Education would soon begin offering guidance for colleges and universities on strategies to increase diversity and educational opportunities.
“Many people wrongly believe affirmative action allows unqualified students to be admitted before qualified students,” Biden told reporters on Thursday. Biden added that admissions offices should consider “if a student had to overcome adversity on their path to education.”
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean Pierre said that the Departments of Education and Justice would offer resources to colleges and universities about identifying up-to-date lawful admissions practices within 45 days.
When asked if he thought the Supreme Court had gone rogue, Biden said, “This is not a normal court.”
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