College admissions in the United States might be set to change forever as the Supreme Court hears two cases concerning race-based admissions policies at elite institutions like Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. Affirmative action helps underrepresented groups to gain admission to colleges where, for centuries, they have been underrepresented. This Supreme Court case is the latest in a spate of disputes surrounding admissions at top colleges in the US, with institutions coming under fire for their policies, fee structures and general admissions philosophies.
Race-conscious admissions practices allow universities to consider a student’s race as one factor in the admissions process in order to help create a diverse student body that enriches the educational experiences of all students. “Race conscious policies, such as affirmative action, aim to address racial discrimination by recognizing and responding to the structural barriers that have denied underrepresented students access to higher education,” the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said.
In the 1960s and 70s, universities started admitting larger numbers of African Americans after generations of exclusion for students of color. Many universities started using race as an element along with a variety of other factors to determine a student’s eligibility for admission. Harvard has stated that the university has a very high-achieving pool of candidates and uses race as just one factor in awarding admission. In the past admission cycle, Harvard received over 60,000 applications for approximately 2,000 available spots. A vast number of applicants were academically at the tops of their class – 8,000 had perfect GPAs, and over 4,000 were ranked first in their class.
There are two cases in which the Supreme Court will consider whether to uphold the universities’ ability to consider race in college admissions: Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard, and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina. In both cases, the organization Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), led by anti-affirmative action crusader Edward Blum, is once again, after previous failed efforts, seeking the elimination of all race-conscious admissions practices. Twice already, the Supreme Court has rejected Blum’s arguments and ruled that universities can consider race in admissions to promote diversity on campus and enrich students’ learning experience.
The SFFA claims that affirmative action policies amounted to illegal and unconstitutional racial discrimination, particularly against white and Asian applicants who might “lose out in a zero-sum admissions process if their Black and Latino peers were to get preference,” the New York Times has reported.
On the other side, Harvard says that 40% of universities use race-based admission, Reuters reported. Supporters of race conscious admissions include the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the American Council on Education, the Anti-Defamation League, former military officials, faith organizations, leading economists and social scientists, and major American corporations including Apple, General Electric, Intel, Microsoft, and Verizon.
The defense, including lawyers from the Biden administration, argued that these policies were necessary to shorten the gap between underrepresented minorities that go back centuries, NPR has reported. The universities have also presented data showing that race is only one among many factors considered for a student’s admission.
A decision on the two cases will likely be delivered in June, 2023. However, verdicts could be different for Harvard, a private institution, and UNC, a public university that has to abide by an additional set of rules.
In the past, the Supreme Court has upheld affirmative action practices for universities, most recently in 2016, NPR reported. Although it is hard to predict what the Supreme Court decides, there are many experts who believe that affirmative action programs might be suspended at universities, the New York Times reported. The court has repeatedly upheld affirmative action programs, most recently in 2016, but the make-up of the Chief Justices has changed. Recently, the Supreme Court ruled against abortion in the United States, overturning Roe v. Wade in a move many believe to be conservative. This leads many experts to believe that affirmative action might be on its way out.
Race conscious admission policies allow universities to build more diverse student bodies, the ACLU stated. It maintains that, “students from diverse backgrounds who learn from each other and are exposed to a variety of experiences, backgrounds, interests, and talents are better prepared to be successful in our society.”
If the Supreme Court blocks the ability of universities to consider race, there will be a significant drop in the number of students of color being admitted to elite and selective universities, the Washington Post reported. This could also have a knock-on effect on employers who work to diversify their workforces. Lower courts cited this as a main reason for upholding affirmative action policies. “Less diverse campuses will harm students of color and white students alike, and take us backward in our efforts to overcome the country’s shameful legacy of racism and racial inequality,” the ACLU said.