US Supreme Court blocks affirmative action in admissions

Trump-installed conservative supermajority ends decades of precedent that allowed consideration of racial diversity in undergraduate enrolments

June 29, 2023
The Supreme Court of the United States building Washington, D.C.
Source: iStock

The US Supreme Court has rejected use of affirmative action in college admissions, saying the practice violates the equal protection laws of the US Constitution.

The nation’s top court voted 6-2 and 6-3 against race-based considerations in cases from Harvard University and the University of North Carolina.

The decision was delivered by a supermajority of conservative jurists created during the Trump administration, overturning decades of Supreme Court precedent that for decades allowed racial considerations in US college admissions as long as the practice was part of a broader assessment of students and not a sole determining factor.

The looming decision was awaited with dread across much of US higher education – even though relatively few institutions are selective enough in their admissions practices to be directly affected – both because of the academic control implications and because of the agenda-setting power of the nation’s most elite institutions.

“Because Harvard’s and UNC’s admissions programmes 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 programmes cannot be reconciled with the guarantees of the Equal Protection Clause,” the conservative majority writes.

Campus resource: What's next for US university admissions?

“At the same time, nothing prohibits universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected the applicant’s life, so long as that discussion is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability that the particular applicant can contribute to the university,” they write. “Many universities have for too long wrongly concluded that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned, but the colour of their skin. This nation’s constitutional history does not tolerate that choice.”

That distinction was seen as important for many in US higher education, who were resigned to the court’s decision but hoped the justices would still allow admissions officers to find other ways of taking race-based experiences into account in their acceptance decisions.

The cases stemmed from lawsuits brought against a public institution, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a private one, Harvard. Both universities prevailed at lower court stages, proving that their admissions policies met the existing Supreme Court standard permitting race as one among several factors for winnowing their undergraduate applications.

The defeat for the universities had seemed almost certain since this past November, when day-long oral arguments in the cases left little doubt that the court’s 6-3 conservative majority was highly sceptical of race-based preferences. Several of the conservative justices suggested that Harvard could improve the racial composition of its student body without race-based admissions preferences, by reducing or eliminating preferences and advantages for wealthier applicants, athletes and children of alumni and faculty.

The Biden administration stood on the side of the universities in defending race-based preferences in admissions. During the Supreme Court’s hearing on the matter, it urged the justices to at least consider options that encourage greater use of alternatives to race-based considerations without forbidding them outright.

In two large states where voters banned racial preferences in college admissions, their flagship campuses – at the University of California and the University of Michigan – both experienced sharp subsequent declines in black student enrolment.

The cases against Harvard and North Carolina were brought by a conservative organisation, Students for Fair Admissions, which has argued that it represents the interests of ethnic Asian students who already win large shares of the seats at elite US institutions but feel they would win even more if they were judged only on academic merit.

Their position was backed by the top Republicans in Congress. “Fairness is the lynchpin to educational opportunity in America,” the party’s leaders said in a brief submitted to the Supreme Court.

Opinions on the topic among Americans as a whole are tougher to decipher, with support in polling found to depend on how the question is phrased. A survey by the Pew Research Centre earlier this year found that Americans on balance disapprove of selective colleges and universities considering race and ethnicity when making admissions decisions. Yet another survey this year, by the Associated Press and the NORC Centre for Public Affairs Research at the University of Chicago, found most Americans did not want the Supreme Court to disturb the current practice.

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Reader's comments (1)

However the selection criteria may be shifted to focus more on economic deprivation. This will still help poorer BAME students, and it will also provide a route up for poorer White students, so overall the levelling up agenda or whatever that is called in the US may get more inclusive.