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8 Ways the Supreme Court’s Affirmative Action Decision Changes College Admissions

The recent Supreme Court decision has become a pivotal moment for college admissions. For any future applicants, we would like to discuss, objectively, how this may affect your college admissions decisions. This decision has invited different reactions, but we want to cover this substantial decision on affirmative action that may change how the admissions process works: admissions may initially become harder for underrepresented minority groups and easier for overrepresented groups.

What is Affirmative Action?

Affirmative action is an approach that aims to address historical inequalities and promote diversity by providing opportunities for underrepresented groups. By taking proactive measures to counteract systemic barriers and biases that have historically disadvantaged certain groups (based on race, ethnicity, gender, etc.), affirmative action aims to ensure that individuals with backgrounds from such groups have fair access to employment and educational opportunities. These individuals may be given limited preferences as they may have faced restricted access to resources and opportunities. Overall, affirmative action is an umbrella term for the policies and procedures used in both the workforce and educational system and is broader than simply the college admissions process.

Traditional merit-based selection alone may not be sufficient in overcoming the effects of past discrimination and inequality. Therefore, this approach considers a broader range of factors in hopes of redressing past injustices, fostering diversity, and creating a more inclusive society. This may ultimately help increase the representation of underrepresented groups in positions of influence, power, and leadership, such as in academia, business, and government, and thus, giving a voice for more diverse perspectives shaping policies, decisions, and social dynamics. Of course, it is important to note that this topic is complex and controversial, and there are diverse opinions on its effectiveness, fairness, and implementation.

The Supreme Court’s Decision

On June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action with a 6-2 vote in Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina (2023) and with a 6-3 vote in Students For Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College (2023). The majority concluded that using affirmative action in college admissions (more specifically, Harvard College’s and the University of Carolina’s admissions programs) violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In other words, considering race during the admissions process has now been deemed unconstitutional.

With admissions programs using affirmative action policies, those of a certain race are given limited preferences, and it does not make up an entire student’s identity nor is it the deciding factor of acceptance or rejection. Though it is important to consider individual qualities such as “courage and determination, as the Opinion of the Court mentioned, to demand that a student’s identity be tied to these factors would “perpetuate the false narrative that Harvard and UNC currently provide ‘preferences on the basis of race alone,’” as Justice Jackson stated. In other words, race is not the main basis for admissions programs. Justice Jackson highlighted that the Court’s precedents “already require that universities take race into account holistically, in a limited way,” and ultimately, there is the “inevitable truth that race matters in students’ lives.” Even Chief Justice Roberts, who held that such admissions programs are unconstitutional, wrote that “nothing in [the] 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,” meaning that applicants have the option to express and detail how race has impacted their lives in their applications (such as in essays).

What did America think of the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action?

Source: Poll by ABC News
Source: Poll by ABC News

What is interesting to note is that before the decision came out, the opinion was split differently:

 Source: Pew Research survey from early June 2023.
Source: Pew Research survey from early June 2023.

What does this show? That there are a range of evolving viewpoints on this and it means that we will have to track the changes in college admissions to understand how this decision will ‘operationalize’ itself.

8 Ways Affirmative Action May Affect Admissions

With the understanding of the impact this decision may have on the admissions process, below are 6 possible effects moving forward:

1. A change in the nature of diversity on college campuses and the workforce

The objective of affirmative action was to increase diversity on college campuses and, in turn, in the workforce. The new decision of the Supreme Court will, undoubtedly, have far-reaching implications on this, especially for private universities. However, in what direction would we expect to see these changes?

One possible implication could very well be an initial decrease in the representation of underrepresented minority groups. Since some rising college freshmen prioritize diversity as an important factor of a college, this may impact enrollment rates of underrepresented minority groups. However, it must be acknowledged that many, usually private, universities take pride in their diverse student populations, and they may find other ways to maintain that diversity. With the decreased representation of underrepresented minority groups on college campuses, a similar effect may follow in the workplace. A 2013 Harvard study found that after banning affirmative action in key states (California, Michigan, Nebraska, Washington), there were disproportionately sharp declines in the workplace for Asian women (37%), Black women (4%), and Latino men (7%).

2. Changed admissions criteria

In the end, we cannot be sure how admissions officers may or may not change their criteria for accepting students. Even so, without demographic information, colleges might have to rely more heavily on traditional admissions criteria. This includes test scores (AP, SAT, etc.), grades, extracurricular activities, essays, recommendation letters, and demonstrated interest. We know that these application factors can frequently be socioeconomically associated, which can harm students who may not have access to help in these aspects.

3. Difficult application process for underrepresented students

With a potentially reduced pool of admitted students from underrepresented backgrounds, competition for limited spots might intensify among all applicants. There may be greater competition between applicants who have the resources to obtain better test scores or access to more extracurricular activities. On the other hand, for underrepresented students, the admissions process may become more demanding considering that they may not have the same opportunities.

4. Change in diversity policies on campus

Colleges might need to reassess their institutional goals and priorities in terms of diversity and inclusion. It seems that colleges want to preserve diversity in any other ways they can. For example, Peter Salovey, the President of Yale University, wrote that the university will remain committed to “creating and sustaining a diverse and inclusive community” and will “use all lawful means to achieve it.”

5. Class-based or socioeconomic affirmative action

When affirmative action was banned for the University of California schools in the 90s, we initially saw sharp drops in diversity due to decreased African American and Latino student enrollment. In hopes of achieving greater diversity, UC’s began to consider socioeconomic experiences like living in an underserved area, attending an under-resourced school, and being a first-generation student. Colleges may pivot towards using socioeconomic factors in the admissions process to gain more insight into the backgrounds of applicants.

6. Targeted recruitment programs

Colleges may need to develop alternative strategies to promote diversity without relying on affirmative action. This may include shifting the focus towards different means of promoting diversity by alteration of outreach programs, such as modifying outreach efforts to target underrepresented groups through recruitment. This could open doors to a new way of maintaining diversity without explicitly considering race or ethnicity.

7. Questioning legacy admissions

Now that race cannot be used as a factor in the college admissions process, there are those questioning, including President Biden, whether legacy admissions (where colleges give special consideration to family members of alumni) should be investigated. It could be that in the future, legacy admissions may be reduced or eliminated.

8. Diversity essays may become more important

Although colleges can no longer consider race or ethnicity in the admissions process, students are still able to discuss their background in their essays or interviews. That is to say, you are free to write or talk about how your race or ethnicity has specifically impacted your life and why it has transformed you into who you are today. Even if it is optional to write about how your race may have affected your life, we recommend you to write about it!

What Does This Mean for Future Applicants?

Again, students are allowed to bring up the topic of race or ethnicity in the admissions process (essays, interviews, etc.). We are not separate from our racial or ethnic identities; so, if you believe that such a part of your identity has played a role in your life, colleges can consider your racial or ethnic background given you are the one to raise the matter first. Put simply, the job has now been shifted from the college’s to yours.

With your essays and interviews, we encourage you to look for resources (peers, teachers, accessible counseling services) that can assist you to maximize your potential. In terms of demonstrated interest, especially for colleges that take it into account, we advise that if you are unable to travel to a campus for a tour or information sessions, you should sign up for online sessions so that you can still learn about the college and even have the chance to meet with admissions and/or financial aid officers. It is always important to express your character, values, and potential contributions to the campus community to present yourself as a good fit for the school.

Most importantly, do not fret. Continue working as hard as you are now, and make sure that you take advantage of free resources, particularly if you are an underrepresented or disadvantaged minority student.

Some Personal Thoughts

As a low-income, Asian-American student attending Harvard myself, I will say that having a diverse student body has helped me in and out of the classroom. My classrooms are filled with peers from different backgrounds, and I continue to learn even about the different Asian cultures from my fellow Asian American friends. Simply beyond race or ethnicity, I am a beneficiary from the diversity Harvard has fostered in regards to class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc. And despite being low-income, my parents did their best to support me throughout high schools with tutoring programs and other resources. There are many students out there who have not had those same opportunities and are yet able to reach a level of achievement that makes them stand out in the admissions process. Ultimately, I believe that affirmative action boosts holistic admissions and is crucial to nurture a diverse learning environment. I hope that future college students will have the same opportunity to see through the diverse lens of their peers.

If you are interested in doing university-level research, then you could also consider applying to the Lumiere Research Scholar Program, a selective online high school program for students founded with researchers at Harvard and Oxford. Last year, we had over 4000 students apply for 500 spots in the program! You can find the application form here.

Rachel is a first year at Harvard University concentrating in neuroscience. She is passionate about health policy and educational equity, and she enjoys traveling and dancing.

Image Source: iStock



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