Supreme Court to Reevaluate Affirmative Action in College Admissions

January 25, 2022
college campus

The United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments challenging race-conscious college admissions policies, which could impact the future of affirmative action in higher education.

Affirmative Action Challenge Background

In 2014, the group Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) sued Harvard University, arguing that the school’s use of race as an admissions factor penalizes Asian Americans and benefits less-qualified minority applicants. According to the SFFA, Harvard’s admissions policy violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits institutions that receive federal funding from Discriminating “on the grounds of race, color, or national origin.” Defending its policy, Harvard has argued that consideration of race as a factor when evaluating applicants generates a more diverse student body, which ultimately contributes to student success.        

It has been a long road to the Supreme Court for SFFA. After a 2018 trial, United States District Judge Allison Burroughs issued a lengthy opinion finding Harvard’s policy narrowly tailored to pass legal scrutiny and achieve the goal of a diverse study body. SFFA appealed the decision to the First Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed the ruling. The appellate court held that Harvard’s limited use of race in its admissions process conformed with law and existing Supreme Court precedent. Pressing on, SFFA sought review by the Supreme Court. But the Supreme Court didn’t agree to hear the case without first receiving input from the Department of Justice. Supporting Harvard’s policy, the DOJ urged the Supreme Court to reject SFFA’s petition and not hear the case.

Harvard Affirmative Action Case to Be Heard Along with UNC Case

Oral argument in the case will likely occur in the fall. This case will be heard in conjunction with a related University of North Carolina case challenging that school’s use of affirmative action in its admissions process. The UNC case examines whether it’s admissions policy discriminates against both Asian Americans and white students. Although the Supreme Court has regularly upheld academic affirmative action policies in the past, with the addition of Trump appointees Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett to the Court, it remains unclear whether the conservative Court will find these affirmative action policies constitutional at both public and private universities.

The Court’s willingness to hear the Harvard and UNC cases is widely seen as an indication that it could be willing to abolish the use of racial classifications in college admissions.

KJK’s Student & Athlete Defense/Title IX practice will continue to monitor this important issue and provide updates. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to reach out.