What You Need to Know About Affirmative Action in College Admissions

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    As of June 29th, 2023, affirmative action, as practiced by college admissions, is no longer legal. This means that colleges and universities, both public and private, can no longer consider race as an application factor. Instead, colleges must find other, more nuanced ways to foster diversity, including adopting test-optional admission policies, increasing outreach in low-income areas, phasing out legacy admission policies, increasing funding for need-based grants, and perhaps even reevaluating athletic recruiting policies. 

    Although many colleges are still committed to fostering diversity, the Supreme Court decision on affirmative action is a devastating blow. One that will impact thousands of minority students. You likely have lots of questions right now, such as: How did this happen? Is affirmative action legal? And how will this affect college admissions? You aren’t alone in your concerns. Colleges, educators, students, parents, and policymakers are all scrambling to make sense of the Supreme Court decision on affirmative action. 

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    Affirmative action Supreme Court ruling 2023

    To start, let’s talk about the two most recent affirmative action Supreme Court cases: Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina. 

    In both cases, the Students for Fair Admissions argued that admission policies discriminated against white and Asian American applicants by practicing race-conscious admissions. Edward Blum, a conservative legal activist, represented both cases. 

    Initial hearings for these cases took place in October but the decision was released on June 29th, 2023. With a conservative majority in the Supreme Court, affirmative action was deemed unconstitutional, with a 6-2 ruling against Harvard College and a 6-3 ruling against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As a result of the Supreme Court’s decision, affirmative action is now illegal. 

    What is affirmative action?

    So, what is affirmative action?

    Some of you might be surprised to learn that affirmative action doesn’t only apply to college admissions. In fact, affirmative action was first introduced to address discrimination in the workplace as part of reforms for civil rights. It was first introduced in 1961 when President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order which stated government contractors must “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and employees are treated without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” President Lyndon B. Johnson modified this act in 1967 to include gender. 

    From its inception to the present day, affirmative action has never been about granting special privileges to minorities, as many falsely believe. Affirmative action makes illegal the type of discrimination that was legal in the era of segregation. 

    Basically, affirmative action puts checks in place to make sure that institutions, like universities and colleges, don’t preferentially select applicants of a specific race, ethnicity, or gender. Not all schools have affirmative action processes; these programs have always been elective. Typically, though, highly selective institutions, such as Ivy League colleges, have a history of practicing affirmative action. 

    What is affirmative action in college admissions?

    In order to implement affirmative action, colleges may ask you to voluntarily present information on your race, ethnicity, native language, country of origin, socio-economic class, parental attendance (legacy admissions), and/or gender. They then use this information to track admissions and provide resources to communities from which representation is lacking at that institution. Some ways they do this are through scholarships and waiving fees. 

    Basically, affirmative action allows colleges to consider whether or not an applicant is a member of a racial minority as a part of the application process. Not all schools have affirmative action processes. Highly selective institutions, such as Ivy League colleges, typically have a history of practicing affirmative action. While affirmative action has never been able to fully address racial and economic inequality, it did help to increase educational (and with it, economic) opportunities for minority groups. 

    Legal history of affirmative action

    Affirmative action has been highly contested since its introduction by President John F. Kennedy in 1961. Although there have been numerous court cases concerning the legality of affirmative action, there have only been six Supreme Court cases concerning Affirmative Action, including the two most recent affirmative action Supreme Court cases in 2023.

    Past Supreme Court cases about affirmative action

    There have been four Supreme Court cases addressing Affirmative Action prior to 2023. We’ll briefly explain each of these famous affirmative action Supreme Court cases below:

    Affirmative action 1978 Supreme Court case

    During the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke case, Allan Bakke argued that he was rejected from the University of California Medical School at Davis, solely on account of the fact that he was white. At the time, the University of California Medical School reserved 16 spots (out of 100) for qualified minority applicants. Although Allan Bakke’s college GPA and test scores were higher than accepted minority applicants and he applied to the program twice, he was not admitted. 

    In response, the Supreme Court ruled that the use of racial quotas violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, and was therefore unconstitutional. 

    Affirmative action 2003 Supreme Court cases

    In 2003, the Supreme Court heard two cases concerning affirmative action: Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger. Both of these cases were instrumental in reshaping affirmative action admission policies post Regents of the University of California v. Bakke.

    In the Grutter v. Bollinger case, Barbara Grutter, a white Michigan resident, argued that she was rejected from the University of Michigan Law School on account of the fact that she was white. Grutter alleged that the school used race as a predominant admissions factor and purposefully discriminated against white students. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the University of Michigan, stating that while the school considered race, it only did so on a case-by-case basis and did not employ racial quotas. 

    In the Gratz v. Bollinger case, Jennifer Gratz and Patrick Hammacher, two white residents of Michigan, were rejected from the University of Michigan. Both alleged that the undergraduate admissions process was unconstitutional. At the time, the University of Michigan ranked applicants on a 150-point scale, with 100 points guaranteeing admission. Minority applicants automatically received an extra 20 points. Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled that these admissions practices were unconstitutional.

    Affirmative action 2016 Supreme Court case

    After being rejected from the University of Texas at Austin, Abigail N. Fisher, a white woman, alleged that the school’s admissions policy was unconstitutional in that it prioritized race. During the Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin ruling, the Supreme Court sided with the University of Texas, upholding the school’s right to consider race as an admissions factor. 

    Existing state legislature: affirmative action previously banned in 9 states

    Prior to the Supreme Court ruling on June 29th, 2023, affirmative action policies were banned at public colleges and universities in nine states: 

    1. California (1996)
    2. Washington (1998; reversed in 2022)
    3. Florida (1999)
    4. Michigan (2006)
    5. Nebraska (2008)
    6. Arizona (2010)
    7. New Hampshire (2012)
    8. Oklahoma (2012)
    9. Idaho (2020)

    It is worth noting that three additional states, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, banned the use of affirmative action in 1996. These rulings, however, were reversed in 2003, due to the Supreme Court case Grutter v. Bollinger.

    Statements from the University of California and the University of Michigan

    The University of California and the University of Michigan both submitted arguments in favor of race-conscious admissions during the 2023 Supreme Court cases. Representatives cautioned that diversity plummeted at their respective institutions after affirmative action policies were banned. 

    After the Supreme Court ruling, the University of California reflected on its own struggles with diversity since California’s affirmative action ban in 1996: 

    Since the consideration of race in admissions was banned in California 27 years ago by Proposition 209, the University of California has adjusted its admissions practices to comply with the law while continuing to aggressively pursue avenues for increasing diverse student applications, admissions, enrollment, and retention. Through a comprehensive admissions review process, we have made important strides in this area — but more work remains to be done by us all.

    Today’s court decision bars the use of an important tool for other higher education institutions. The consideration of race was not the conclusive solution to inequities in college admissions, but it was an important pathway to addressing systemic deficiencies. Without it, we must work much harder to identify and address the root causes of societal inequities that hinder diverse students in pursuing and achieving a higher education.”

    Source: UC statement on SCOTUS decision regarding the use of race in college admissions | University of California 

    The University of Michigan issued a similar statement in response to the 2023 Supreme Court ruling. Below is a brief excerpt from that statement:

    “Although the U-M is not directly affected by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to significantly narrow how race can be considered in admissions policies, we are deeply disheartened by the court’s ruling.

    We remain firmly convinced that racial diversity is one of the many important components of a broadly diverse student body and an intellectually and culturally rich campus community. We believe racial diversity benefits the exchange and development of ideas by increasing students’ variety of perspectives, promoting cross-racial understanding, and dispelling racial stereotypes. It helps prepare students to be leaders in a global marketplace and increasingly multicultural society. This belief is supported by a robust body of social science and educational research evidence. 

    U-M’s experiences demonstrate what research has now shown clearly — that it is much more difficult to achieve racial diversity in the student body using only race-neutral methods than by including race in the admissions process in a narrowly-tailored manner. Proposal 2 had disproportionate, negative impacts on the most underrepresented communities; race-neutral policies have been much less successful in significantly increasing enrollments of Black and Native American students.” 

    Source: Affirmative Action | U-M Public Affairs

    What does this mean for college admissions?

    There are lots of concerns about how the affirmative action Supreme Court ruling will affect higher education, especially as Admissions Become More Competitive As Applications Rise

    One of the ways colleges hope to encourage cultural diversity is by continuing to adopt test-optional admission policies. Standardized tests tend to favor high-income applicants. This is because these applicants can afford to pay for tutors and test preparation programs. They can also afford to retake tests more easily. If you’re interested in applying to test-optional schools, check out our article, What Colleges Are Test-Optional for 2023? 

    Personal statements, letters of recommendation, and extracurricular activities will continue to take on even more importance. Other factors, such as college major, may play a larger role as well. If you can afford to work with a college counselor, read our article, 10 Questions to Ask a College Counselor Before Hiring One. You may want to reach out for extra assistance during what is sure to be a stressful college admissions season. 


    You can read our CEO’s thoughts on the SCOTUS affirmative action decision here.

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