The court’s 6-3 decision means colleges can no longer consider race as part of their admissions process. That’s a blow for many schools that seek to diversify their student bodies, especially elite ones. Universities have long argued that a diverse campus is good for students in ways beyond mere academic achievement. They say it reduces racial essentialism and expands students’ worldviews. Exactly how colleges will do that won’t be clear until the court releases its decision, which is expected in June. But it’s already clear that the end of affirmative action will have a huge impact on students, particularly those of color.
1. “It’s a big deal”
High school seniors around the country are receiving their college acceptance letters this month. But if the Supreme Court decides to upend affirmative action, this could be their last year of receiving them. The justices are expected to rule later this year that colleges can’t consider race explicitly as one of the facets in admission decisions, meaning schools would have to look for other ways to attract a diverse student body.
Many affirmative action supporters argue that it’s not just about increasing diversity, but helping to compensate for centuries of racial injustice and bias. They also argue that without these policies, students of color will face barriers in a college application process. That has been proven to be the case in states that have already ended affirmative action, such as California where the racial demographics of university students have dropped since the state banned the practice.
But the majority of Americans, according to polls, disagree with this argument. In fact, most Americans support some form of affirmative action. In a recent Washington Post-Schar School poll, 6 in 10 voters said that they supported “affirmative action programs that encourage the educational and professional advancement of individuals based on their qualifications and achievements.”
In the Supreme Court case, conservatives are arguing that affirmative action is a violation of the Constitution’s equal protection clause. They argue that it disproportionately benefits white students, while doing little to help black or Latinx applicants. In her dissent, justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the ruling is a step backwards in the fight for equality.
But many students say that they’re not happy with the court’s decision. Keira Bradley, a senior at the University of Minnesota, says that she’s not excited about what her college acceptance will look like without affirmative action. She says that it will be harder for her to get into the school she wants because she won’t have the same advantage as other applicants who are white. She adds that she’s not sure that schools will be able to find another way to promote diversity without using race-based affirmative action.
2. “It’s a good thing”
Whether or not people agree with affirmative action policies, many Americans believe that diversity should be a priority in higher education. However, the specifics of affirmative action often become conflated with the broader issue of race in America, and public perception can be clouded by longstanding myths about the topic. For example, when Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) pushed for Harvard to stop using race in admissions decisions, they also argued that the policy was unfair to Asian American applicants. This framing allowed SFFA to tap into socially salient racial stereotypes about what does and doesn’t belong at top schools.
The SFFA case and the Supreme Court’s ruling have set off a series of conversations about what role diversity should play in college admissions and why that’s important for our country as a whole. But the discussion is also an opportunity for all of us to think about how we can strive for equity in all areas, not just in college admissions.
This could be in the form of community involvement programs that support low-income students, for example, or rethinking admissions standards like standardized tests that may discriminate against students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. It might mean focusing on the needs of a particular group of students instead of all students as a whole, or it might be in the way we approach hiring or promotion decisions at work or in school districts and departments.
But what many people don’t realize is that the end of affirmative action will affect more than just colleges. It will impact public schools, where the goal is to provide access for all students regardless of economic status or racial background. And it will have a big impact on the nation’s high schools, where many students are already applying for college and choosing which schools to attend.
The SFFA cases brought to the Supreme Court were based on the idea that Harvard and the University of North Carolina’s admission policies violated federal laws against discrimination. But even if those laws were found to be constitutional, many experts agree that the elimination of affirmative action would still have significant negative consequences.
3. “It’s a bad thing”
The Supreme Court’s decision to end affirmative action at Harvard and University of North Carolina will likely result in fewer Black and Latino students on those campuses. And that’s a big deal, says one college admissions expert.
The lawsuits against these schools were filed by conservative activist Edward Blum, who also led the successful challenge to a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. He formed the group Students for Fair Admissions to file the cases, which argued that the Constitution requires colleges and universities to use only “race-neutral” admissions criteria. The justices, including Justice Clarence Thomas, sided with the plaintiffs in their decisions.
SFFA’s first case against Harvard alleged that the institution discriminates against Asian American applicants, while the University of North Carolina case accused it of rejecting workable race-neutral alternatives without proper justification. In its defense, Harvard argued that it would be difficult for the university to meet its goal of diversity without taking race into account.
But it’s not just that Harvard and UNC are nixing affirmative action; it’s the impact of these decisions on other universities, which could follow suit if the decision stands. Across the country, college admissions officials say they are worried about how their students of color will fare.
These students often come from impoverished communities, and their high schools may have few Advanced Placement courses or discouraged SAT prep. As a result, they may have lower scores and grades than their wealthier peers. In addition, they can face barriers to attending college, such as financial constraints and high student debt.
As a result, the loss of affirmative action could lead to fewer underrepresented students at selective institutions, and a more segregated society overall. The decision is especially concerning for those who advocate for a diverse education, as it could also limit the scope of diversity initiatives in public schools and workplaces, where many more underrepresented students are likely to enroll.
Sally Chen, a founder of the Asian American advocacy group Chinese for Affirmative Action, believes that attacks on affirmative action create “a false narrative of scarcity and a sense of fighting over crumbs,” which could be particularly damaging to communities of color. However, she says, the most important thing that colleges can do to keep students of color on campus is to simply offer them a seat.
4. “It’s a good thing”
Students are discussing the Supreme Court’s decision to end affirmative action as they prepare to put together their college applications. They are weighing what this means for their own chances of getting into school, and also thinking about how it will change higher education if colleges can no longer consider race in admissions decisions. Many are confused about how much colleges have used race in their admissions practices in the past, and others have a strong opinion on whether they should be allowed to use it or not.
The ruling means that racial preference for students will no longer be allowed at universities, although some colleges may still offer other forms of diversity programs. Some of these might involve giving preference to underrepresented groups, for example students who are first in their family to go to college or high-achieving minority students. Others might involve promoting other forms of equity like socioeconomic status or gender, as well as providing financial support for low-income students.
Some colleges might also reduce their reliance on factors like standardized tests, which can have a strong negative impact on students from lower-income backgrounds. These could help to level the playing field for some of the same students that are now likely to struggle with getting into selective schools without affirmative action.
The decision to ban affirmative action will have a particularly big impact on Black and Latino students who would otherwise be able to gain entry to top universities with the assistance of a diversity program. These kinds of programs are needed to tackle long-standing discrimination against these students and to ensure that they have the same opportunities as their white counterparts to succeed in a highly competitive world.
The debate over affirmative action is not as contentious as other issues in the news, such as abortion or gay marriage, where the public has firmly aligned with one side or the other. In fact, polls show that a majority of Americans approve of policies to boost racial diversity in college campuses. But the issue is complicated because many people say they are against affirmative action, while also saying that racial inequality is a serious problem in America.