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Higher Education After Affirmative Action

How the U.S. Supreme Court changed the future of college admissions

By Evelyn Letona Robles

The fate of affirmative action was decided on June 29, 2023, with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling against the consideration of race in college admissions—deeming the admissions programs at both Harvard University in Massachusetts and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill unconstitutional. By a vote of 6-3, the decision forces institutions of higher education to identify alternative ways of achieving diverse student bodies and, like last year’s momentous abortion ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade, marks the realization of a long-sought conservative legal goal.

Elite colleges and universities in the United States have been historically reserved for wealthy, predominantly white Americans. Only in the 20th century did these institutions begin to actively prioritize diversity and adopt tools like affirmative action—the practice of considering race and ethnicity as part of a holistic evaluation of a student’s application. Affirmative action programs in higher education were adopted to rectify the history of race-based exclusion, legally enforced segregation, and quota systems that capped the number of nonwhite or other minority students permitted to enroll at colleges and universities across the country. This history of discrimination had everything to do with barring students based on race, regardless of their class, and reinforced disparities that remain evident in many higher institutions today.

The U.S. Supreme Court justices heard the challenges to race-conscious admissions during October of 2023 in two cases: Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina. The plaintiffs in those case argued that admissions policies that consider race violate the Equal Protection Clause. The Harvard case, when it began, purported to focus on the effect of the University’s admissions practices on Asian-American applicants, and in that way relied on a divisive narrative that the empowerment of some students of color in the education system results in discrimination against well-qualified Asian American students—who, in reality, come from a multitude of ethnic backgrounds and experiences, many of which are underrepresented in higher education and benefit from affirmative action. The use of this narrative is not new; groups and individuals that seek to preserve unfair systems have long attempted to sow division in communities of color.

In states that have eliminated affirmative action, studies have consistently found declines in the admission and enrollment of Black, Latine, and Indigenous students. These declines are especially concentrated in selective and flagship institutions. The passage of California’s Proposition 209 in 1996 resulted in a 12 percent decline in underrepresented groups across the whole University of California (UC) system. UC Berkeley and UCLA experienced the biggest effects, with a 60 percent drop in Black, Latine, and Indigenous students. Similarly, in the first class admitted to the University of Washington after the state banned the use of race in admissions, Black, Latine, and Indigenous enrollment made up 7 percent of the entering class, compared with 8.2 percent the year before the ban.

In the search for alternatives to race-based admissions, certain schools and advocates have suggested focusing on socioeconomic statusincluding wealth—as a criterion for preference in college admissions, irrespective of race. This alternative, however, fails to address the specific obstacles that affirmative action was intended to combat. It excludes deserving middle-class Black, Brown, and Indigenous students, who may not meet a socioeconomic status criterion, but who continue to face racial disparities and systemic barriers that hinder their educational opportunities. That is, by omitting consideration of race, this alternative would omit a large number of students from marginalized groups. Socioeconomic status is a relevant factor in addressing disadvantage—college education must be more accessible to low- and middle-income students of all races—but socioeconomic status alone cannot fully replace the multifaceted impact of race-based admissions.

Some schools have begun to reevaluate legacy admissions policies, which advantage children of alumni and donors and therefore privilege students who are already privileged. According to a 2020 Wall Street Journal report, 56 percent of the nation’s top 250 institutions consider legacy in their admissions process. The rate of admission for legacy applicants is more than three times higher than for non-legacy applicants. The systemic exclusion of students of color from higher education means white students benefit most from legacy preferences in admissions. Many highly selective schools admit more legacy applicants than Black and Latine applicants, which is why ending legacy admissions could help make the higher education admission process more equitable. After Johns Hopkins University eliminated legacy preferences in 2014, the percentage of first-generation students increased by approximately 10 percent; the percentage of Pell-eligible students increased by about 7 percent between 2013 and 2021.

Without the option of affirmative action, policymakers and legislators must implement new tools to achieve the goal of equal educational opportunity. Communities should call out and address the systemic barriers of K-12 that prevent students of color from accessing strong college prep programs and resources, especially in low-income, urban, and rural areas. Inequality will otherwise continue to persist, and the American higher education system will fail to serve those that could benefit the most. The Court’s ruling is a painful and devastating reminder of how racial diversity and inclusion will continue to be attacked in the United States—leading millions of students to doubt their potential, but it’s our efforts to overcome this ruling and invest in pathways of opportunities that will achieve true liberty and justice.