The Supreme Court on Thursday ended the use of race-based affirmative action in college admissions, overruling nearly half a century of precedent and depriving selective universities of a tool they say is essential for keeping their campuses diverse.
The ruling, in two lawsuits challenging admissions practices at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, almost surely will cause a significant decline in the number of Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous students admitted to the nation’s most prestigious schools, according to research and analyses presented to the court last year.
President Biden expressed his disappointment in the ruling and encouraged colleges to create a system that considers “the adversity a student has overcome.”
The Education and Justice Departments will publish resources and guidance within the next 45 days to help colleges and universities determine what admissions policies are legal. And Biden also directed the Education Department to analyze what practices help build “inclusive and diverse student bodies and what practices stand in the way, like legacy admissions.”
“We cannot let this decision be the last word,” Biden said. “I know today’s court decision is a severe disappointment to so many people, including me, but we cannot let the decision be a permanent setback for the country.”
College leaders across New England expressed concern that achieving campus diversity, which remains a priority, will be even more challenging, as they now must reconfigure admissions procedures.
“We must educate students of all backgrounds,” said Danielle R. Holley, president-elect of Mount Holyoke College. “We now have to figure out how to do that with the handicap the Supreme Court has given us today.”
The court’s six conservative justices ruled that Harvard’s and UNC Chapel Hill’s admissions practices violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment. The court’s three liberal justices dissented. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, a Harvard alum and former member of the school’s Board of Overseers, recused herself from the Harvard case.
“Many universities have for too long wrongly concluded that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned, but the color of their skin,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion. “Eliminating racial discrimination means eliminating all of it,” he added.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote, “Equal educational opportunity is a prerequisite to achieving racial equality in our Nation.” The majority’s ruling, she added, “cements a superficial rule of colorblindness as a constitutional principle in an endemically segregated society where race has always mattered and continues to matter.”
Jackson joined the dissent as it related to UNC Chapel Hill, and wrote a separate opinion.
In a video posted Thursday, incoming Harvard president Claudine Gay said that while the university doesn’t “have all of the answers about what’s next,” Harvard is committed to “continue opening doors.”
The court’s decision to ban affirmative action comes almost exactly one year after the conservative majority overturned Roe v. Wade, eliminating the constitutional right to abortion that had existed since 1973.
That ruling provoked nationwide protests and, according to some analysts, contributed to an electoral backlash against Republicans in the 2022 midterm elections. (Three of the court’s six conservatives were appointed by former president Donald Trump.)
The college admissions case also centered on a highly emotional issue riven by political divisions: the role of race in modern society.
The ruling is the culmination of nearly a decade of litigation initiated by an anti–affirmative action group called Students for Fair Admissions. In 2014, it filed two lawsuits, one alleging that Harvard’s admissions practices illegally discriminated against Asian American applicants, the other accusing UNC Chapel Hill of disadvantaging Asians and whites. After Students for Fair Admissions lost both cases in lower courts, it appealed to the Supreme Court.
The founder of Students for Fair Admission, Ed Blum, celebrated the court ruling.
“The opinion issued today by the United States Supreme Court marks the beginning of the restoration of the colorblind legal covenant that binds together our multi-racial, multi-ethnic nation,” Blum said in a statement. “A university doesn’t have real diversity when it simply assembles students who look different but come from similar backgrounds and act, talk, and think alike.”
While Roberts’s opinion did not explicitly say the high court’s previous rulings on affirmative action — including the 1978 Bakke decision and a 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger — were overturned, the effect was the same: Affirmative action as the basis for college admissions is now considered unconstitutional. (In a concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote, “Grutter is, for all intents and purposes, overruled.”)
The ruling applies to private colleges and universities because they receive federal funding and are thus subject to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which bars discrimination on the basis of race.
Wellesley College president Paula Johnson said in an interview that the court ruling is likely to have “profound negative consequences on students, colleges, and universities and for our nation.”
“We are thinking about how we are going to not only comply with the law, but what are the ways that we will continue to ensure that we have wide diversity on all levels,” said Johnson, the first person of color to lead the prestigious women’s college.
She said that Wellesley will expand its recruitment and outreach efforts to prospective students of color through community organizations and online efforts to encourage students of color to apply.
“I do worry about the impact on students who are potential applicants, and that is why our recruitment strategies need to be vast and deep,” Johnson said.
Most US adults believe the court should not prohibit colleges from considering race as part of the admissions process, yet few want race to ultimately play a major role in admissions decisions, according to a poll in May by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
The nationwide ban on affirmative action will not affect the majority of college applicants, just those seeking admission to the most selective schools.
Most US college students attend institutions with high acceptance rates and relatively simple admissions criteria, such as minimum GPA requirements. At those schools, race plays a limited role in admissions or none at all, said Angel Pérez, chief executive of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. In addition, nine states have already banned race-based affirmative action in admissions.
But many of the country’s most selective schools — where acceptance rates are low and admissions officers consider many factors, including race — will have to overhaul their admissions practices. Military academies are exempt from the Thursday decision.
In court papers, Harvard estimated that the number of Black and Hispanic students on campus would fall by 1,000 within four years if it stopped considering race in admissions decisions. Undergraduate enrollment is around 7,000.
Administrators at selective schools have been preparing for affirmative action to be struck down by expanding partnerships with nonprofits and community organizations that work with underrepresented and low-income students, and studying how competitive universities in states with existing affirmative action bans have increased enrollment of Black, Hispanic, and multiracial students.
Higher education consultants said selective universities will need to reexamine recruitment strategies and find “race-neutral” means of reaching diverse candidates before they even apply.
The highest court did leave intact so-called holistic admissions practices, in which most selective colleges consider applicants’ unique circumstances and personal experiences beyond academic achievements.
“Colleges and universities can continue to consider socioeconomic diversity and to recruit and enroll students who are first-generation college applicants or who speak multiple languages, for example,” Roberts wrote.
Vincent Rougeau, president of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, was disappointed by the overall decision but relieved that the court let stand holistic review.
“Holistic review matters,” Rougeau, Holy Cross’s first Black leader, said in an interview. “I think it will be interesting to see how applicants tell us about the role of race, class, and ethnicity in their own lives, and how that will allow us to create a community here that reflects the rich tapestry of our society.”
In Texas, after a federal court banned affirmative action in 1996, the state guaranteed admission to any University of Texas campus for students graduating in the top 10 percent of their high school class. In 2003, the university said the top 10 percent policy had “failed to produce a critical mass of minority students at the classroom level.”
After a California referendum banned affirmative action in admissions in 1996, the percentage of Black and Hispanic first-year students at the University of California Berkeley was cut in half. By 2022, the percentage of Berkeley first-year students who were Black remained at 3 percent, less than half the level from 1997, the last year before the effect of the ban was felt.
At the University of California Los Angeles, another selective campus, the numbers have bounced back to a greater extent but have not kept pace with California’s demographics.
“Nothing is as good a tool at ensuring that our campuses really reflect the broader demographics of this country as affirmative action,” said Michele Siqueiros, president of the nonprofit Campaign for College Opportunity in California.
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