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Affirmative action in college admissions is at risk

The Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority is poised to close doors to access, equity, and diversity, but there are others that can be opened.

The Contemplation of Justice statue outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Racial diversity on college campuses isn’t needed just for its own sake. In America, it’s a matter of social justice. From the criminalization of educating enslaved Black people, to the deeply segregated and unequal public and private education systems that persist more than a half century after Brown v. Board of Education, systematic denial to Black Americans of access to quality education is a problem still awaiting a true solution.

As the U.S. Supreme Court stands poised to strike down affirmative action at Harvard and other higher education institutions, it’s incumbent on admissions officials to take a broader approach to ensure that justice is realized by keeping the classroom doors of opportunity open.

On Monday, the court will consider the consolidated cases of Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard and SFFA v. University of North Carolina, the latest high court challenges brought by longtime anti-affirmative action legal activist Edward Blum who claims, in the latest cases, that the policy violates the equal protection rights of Asian American students. His last effort to strike down affirmative action at the high court, on behalf of a White student who sued after being denied admission at the University of Texas at Austin, narrowly failed.

The swing voter in that case, now-retired Justice Anthony Kennedy, is no longer on the court — part of the swift shift that has left the bench with a 6-3 conservative tilt. Now legal experts expect the court to strike down affirmative action as unconstitutional.

So, how can school officials ensure that their student bodies reflect the diversity of the nation if the Supreme Court strips them of a crucial tool in that endeavor? While rectifying the inequities in college admissions requires a complex set of actions, there are a few steps schools, lawmakers, and others who support racial justice in admissions can take now:

Dump standardized college admission tests as an admissions requirement.

The SAT and ACT exams, purported to give admissions officials an unbiased assessment of applicants’ qualifications for college, have long been proven to do exactly the opposite: They demonstrate and help to maintain economic and racial inequality in admissions decisions.

“We have known for more than 30 years that the SATs are a real garbage indicator of student performance,” said Alvin B. Tillery Jr., a Northwestern University political science professor and director of its Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy.

That’s because students who are White and more economically affluent have better access to standardized test preparation, tutoring, and other resources that are often out of reach for students of color. It widens the equality gap Black and Brown students face long before they even sit for the exam.

“The fact that we get any Black students in under-resourced neighborhoods testing within 100 points of White students, who have been prepping for the test since the eighth grade, that is a miracle of over-performance,” Tillery told me.

Research has shown grade-point averages and other admissions considerations are far stronger predictors of student academic performance, underscoring that standardized admissions testing is as unreliable as it is inequitable.

End legacy admissions.

In a system that has long favored privileged White applicants, legacy admissions policies serve as a means to maintain and ingrain that privilege in a perpetual way. That is why several pieces of legislation at the state and federal level are seeking to end the practice.

But Harvard, which is fighting to keep race among its myriad admissions considerations, is one of the biggest defenders of the practice despite research, including a 2020 study, that found at Harvard “a White typical applicant with a 10% chance of admission would see a five-fold increase in admissions likelihood if they were a legacy.”

Harvard and other schools should recognize their legacy admissions policies serve as a large thumb on the scale of equal access.

Tap corporate activism.

Dozens of corporate and business groups — from American Airlines and General Electric to Levi Strauss and Procter & Gamble — signed onto friend-of-the-court briefs in the pending Supreme Court case filed by civil rights organizations like the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

In the briefs, the companies assert not only do racially diverse student populations provide a crucial professional pipeline that helps ensure corporate workplaces reflect the diversity of the nation but also one that is particularly needed in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines.

“Not only does diversity promote better outcomes for students in STEM, it contributes to better science,” one brief states. “As such, American businesses at the forefront of innovation in STEM depend on the availability of a diverse cross-section of talented graduates from the nation’s most rigorous and elite institutions.”

Those businesses and their leaders should also put their money where their mouths are, making their contributions to higher education institutions contingent on admission policies that ensure student bodies are racially and economically reflective of society.

But we saw it coming. The court gave away the ending from the start.

Kimberly Atkins Stohr is a columnist for the Globe. She may be reached at Follow her @KimberlyEAtkins.