In a historic decision, Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, the United States Supreme Court banned affirmative action in college admissions. According to the Court, affirmative action does not comport with the guarantees of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts stated that a student:
“Must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual — not on the basis of race.”
The Evolution of Affirmative Action
So how did the use of race even become a part of the college admissions criteria? Starting in 1978, in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, although the Supreme Court held the University of California’s admissions quota system was unconstitutional, a majority did find that colleges have a “compelling interest” in the benefits of having a diverse student body, which allowed schools to consider race as one of many factors in admissions criteria. Then, approximately twenty years later, in Grutter v. Bollinger, the Supreme Court explained that colleges could consider the race of applicants provided they did so in an individualized and narrowly tailored way. Notably, however, the Grutter court stated that race-conscious admissions programs should not be used indefinitely.
Seeking to end the use of affirmative action in higher education, legal activist Edward Blum founded the non-profit organization Students for Fair Admissions in 2014. The organization had one aim – to support litigation on behalf of those who felt they experienced reverse discrimination. In both cases before the Supreme Court, Asian Americans students served as the plaintiffs.
Reactions and Criticisms
In the wake of the ruling, President Biden has expressed that he “strongly disagree[s] with the decision.” The United States Department of Education also released a statement condemning the opinion. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona stated the following:
“I want to send a message to all aspiring students, especially Black, Latino, Asian American, Native American, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, and other students from underserved communities: we see you and we need you. Do not let this ruling deter you from pursuing your educational potential. Our colleges and our country itself cannot thrive and compete in the 21st century without your talent, ingenuity, perseverance, and ambition.”
Implications of the Decision
The implications of the decision are expected to be far-reaching. If you have a high school student applying to college in the near future, keep the following in mind:
- The numbers of Black, Latino, and Native American students at more selective schools is expected to decline.
- Strategy surrounding personal essays will become even more important because there is a small window for consideration of race by schools. Chief Justice Roberts explained “Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.”
- The opinion will also have a significant impact on high-achieving students applying to highly selective schools. Admissions are expected to become even more competitive.
- It is anticipated that the Common Application will maintain optional questions asking for race and ethnicity. However, member institutions will be able to suppress self-disclosures.
- Students can still apply to college access programs, which benefit first-generation and low-income students.