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Supreme Court rules against Affirmative Action

June 29, 2023

Today, the Supreme Court ended Affirmative Action on college campuses. The syllabus (headnote) to the decision stated: “Because Harvard's and UNC's admissions programs lack sufficiently focused and measurable objectives warranting the use of race, unavoidably employ race in a negative manner, involve racial stereotyping, and lack meaningful end points, those admissions programs cannot be reconciled with the guarantees of the Equal Protection Clause.”

With this ruling, the Supreme Court upends a status quo that has existed for 45 years.

Impacts, from undergraduates to STEM faculty

Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce’s (CEW) report, Race, Elite College Admissions, and the Courts: The Pursuit of Racial Equality in Education Retreats to K–12 Schools, prepared before the decision was released states, As a result of the expected ruling, selective higher education institutions almost certainly will become less diverse, reducing the rates of degree attainment among students from historically underrepresented racial/ethnic groups.”

In academia, there is a fear that there could be a dampening effect on those trying to diversify the scientific workforce. An article in Science notes some people in higher education worry that the ruling “could have a significant impact on the nation’s ability to remain a global leader in innovation.” The Science article quotes Rutgers’ Marybeth Gasman, an expert in racism and diversity, who noted that faculty in STEM at the nation’s top STEM universities earned their undergraduate and graduate degrees at elite universities. That pattern, she said, has contributed to a chronic underrepresentation of minority STEM faculty through what she calls systemic racism. If fewer students from underrepresented groups get into elite institutions due to the end of affirmative action, the pipeline for diverse faculty will be seriously disrupted.

An alternative route to DEI

While this ruling is likely to have a harsh effect on equity on many college campuses, some colleges and universities will be able to maintain some levels of diversity and equity among their student body and programs. The abovementioned Science article ended on a note of optimism, citing Jamie Lewis Keith, the Distinguished Law and Policy Fellow at EducationCounsel, who believes the justices “will leave room for efforts that draw on the concerns and life experiences of minorities to create a more inclusive academic environment without making race an eligibility criterion.” In fact, on page eight of the syllabus (headnote) to the Supreme Court’s decision notes that the decision still allows universities to consider an applicant’s discussion of how race affected their life: “…nothing prohibits universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected the applicant’s life, so long as that discussion is concretely timed to a quality of character or unique ability that the particular applicant an contribute to the university.”

The CEW report mentioned above suggests that higher education can achieve DEI if selective colleges reform their admission processes and remove preferred admissions policies, such as those that favor legacies, children of big donors, and athletes. But they note, “those reforms would require selective colleges to confront biases, significantly expand access, and provide students much more financial and educational support.”

However, the CEW report is pessimistic about these changes taking place. It suggests that instead, the DEI fight will have to take place in state legislatures and courts, where DEI proponents will fight for more equitable spending on K-12 schools. “The racial and economic segregation of K–12 education is at the root of the gaps in educational opportunity that leave low-income and underrepresented minority students at a clear disadvantage,” they state in the report.

The impact may depend on local demographics more than politics

The battle will now move to the states. Democratic-leaning states are likely to find ways to encourage DEI in higher education since, as recent research from the Pew Foundation found, 57% of Democrats are in favor of affirmative action.

Other findings from the Pew study, however, indicate that the demographic makeup, as opposed to political leanings, could determine admissions policies. For example, affirmative action legislation in California, Proposition 16, was recently rejected, even though the state is predominantly Democratic and Democratic-leaning, leading political analysts to think the legislation would easily pass. The Pew research mentioned above found that 53% of Asian adults are not very enthusiastic about affirmative action, saying they were more likely to believe that considering race and ethnicity in the overall admissions process of colleges was not fair. As reported in a recent New York Times analysis of the failed In California, nearly all majority Asian precincts in Los Angeles voted against the proposition, even though the same precincts supported President Joe Biden in the last election. The New York Times explains the result by noting, “[a]ffirmative action, to their view, upends traditional measures of merit — grades, test scores and extracurricular activities — and threatens to reduce their numbers.”


diversity, equity, inclusion, higher ed