Higher Ed Preps for the End of Race-Conscious Admissions

SCOTUS to consider two cases seeking to eliminate affirmative action and legacy admissions.

5 minutes
By: Tavleen Tarrant
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October 31 is usually a day reserved for pumpkins, trick-or-treat and spooky ghost stories. This Halloween, however, leaders in higher education will also be anxiously watching a Supreme Court decision that could spell the end of race-conscious admissions at tertiary education institutes nationwide. The court will hear two lawsuits brought by the anti-affirmative action group, Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) on October 31. The group will bring a case against Harvard (a private institution) and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (a public institution), as the plaintiff seeks to eliminate affirmative action and legacy admissions. Legacy admissions have long been used at elite universities around the country, a practice considered the antithesis of affirmative action. However, SFFA alleges that the elimination of legacy admissions will also eliminate the need for affirmative action. 

SFFA alleges that the practice of race-conscious admissions is discriminatory under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. In the lower courts, the group lost its case against affirmative action, but SFFA appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case this October. On the SFFA website, the mission statement aims to “support and participate in litigation that will restore the original principles of our nation’s civil rights movement: A student’s race and ethnicity should not be factors that either harm or help that student gain admission to a competitive university.”

Led by conservative legal strategist, Edward Blum, the group alleges that, through affirmative action, Harvard and The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill have been intentionally discriminating against Asian student applicants. 

SFFA’s filing against Harvard indicated, “Only using race or ethnicity as a dominant factor in admissions decisions could, for example, account for the remarkably low admission rate for high-achieving Asian American applicants. Harvard’s admissions decisions simply are not explainable on grounds other than race.” 

However, according to the 2020 Asian American Voter Survey (AAVS) that polled nearly 1,570 voters, 70% of Asian American voters supported affirmative action.

The upcoming Supreme Court hearing on October 31 is not the first time a major challenge to affirmative action has been presented to the court. In 1978, the Supreme Court ruling of the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265, upheld affirmative action but dismantled the use of racial quotas in higher education institutions.

After recent Supreme Court rulings indicated a potential shift in the court’s approach to decisions, such as Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, some higher education leaders are preparing for an end to race-conscious admissions practices nationwide in universities ahead of the October 31 Supreme Court hearing.

Marie Bigham is the founder of ACCEPT, a non-profit group that aims to eradicate racism in admissions. She said that a ruling siding with SFFA would change the landscape of higher education significantly. 

“It is really important to understand that it’s [Supreme Court decision] not just ramifications for universities. It’s a huge industry with a lot of players. My fear is this is going to have a radical impact on everybody engaged in this process. So much attention has been placed on what colleges are going to do, but I’m worried about what everyone else in the space is going to do,” said Bigham.

She said that her foundation has been preparing through writing amicus briefs. However, she indicated, as a society, “We are not prepared.” 

“All the preparation has been focused on colleges. I have been working with our writers on that to envision how this might impact everyone else in the process. How will we operate in this new landscape, and how will we be activists and reclaim what race-conscious admissions are,” Bigham continued.

Whether institutions are public or private, or in a red or blue state, most colleges and universities are dependent on state funding and/or public perception in some ways, and they must balance the often-conflicting demands of students and political leaders that help fund the institutions’ existence.

 

Jay Rosner, the founder of The Princeton Review Foundation, a non-profit organization advocating for affirmative action and fair admissions testing, shares similar thoughts to Bigham.

Rosner worries about the future of race-conscious admissions, particularly with the three President Trump-appointed Supreme Court justices. 

“Affirmative action is intended to mitigate and lessen the impact of all the disparities that students from underrepresented minority groups encounter,” said Rosner. 

Rosner noted that universities need to prepare for a potential post-affirmative action world scenario. 

“Various universities have different degrees of preparedness. Some are taking this more seriously than others. This is a concern for those who aren’t taking it seriously yet. There is difficulty in preparing because we don’t know what the decision will be. So, we must anticipate different scenarios in what might be decided at the Supreme Court,” said Rosner.

Ahead of the Supreme Court decision, Bigham said she worries about how college applications will change should the current ruling change. Will students of color hide parts of their identities and stories in applications?

“I don’t think we have the creativity to envision how bad this is going to be. I hope I’m wrong but I don’t have that hope right now,” said Bigham.

Michael Ares, principal owner of MDA Corporate Marketing LLC, which works with higher ed clients, said whether institutions are public or private, or in a red or blue state, most colleges and universities are dependent on state funding and/or public perception in some ways, and they must balance the often-conflicting demands of students and political leaders that help fund the institutions’ existence. Currently, many higher education leaders are reluctant to comment on the situation and are taking a wait-and-see approach.

Tavleen Tarrant

Tavleen Tarrant

Reporter

Tavleen Tarrant has a Masters in Journalism from Columbia University, a Bachelor of Arts and Social Sciences in International Relations from the University of New South Wales and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and International Relations from the University of Queensland. She is a freelance journalist who writes about higher ed, gender, the global economy, migration, labor rights, politics and everything in between.



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