The Supreme Court’s long-awaited decisions on two cases that would implicate the fate of race-conscious admissions at public and private institutions’ undergraduate levels finally came out last week. Its decisions to rule against affirmative action have struck a nerve with higher education leaders.
The six judges in favor of eliminating affirmative action argued that considering race in college admissions is unconstitutional because it violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. But Wesleyan University President Michael S. Roth and Amin Abdul-Malik Gonzalez, Vice President and Dean of Admission and Financial Aid, find the ruling tone deaf.
“Appealing to a principle of ‘color-blindness’ at odds with history and law, the Court’s conservative majority says, ‘trust us’ while it imposes its will on higher education’s admission policies,” Roth and Gonzalez wrote in an email. “By using a reductive sense of how race is dealt with in college admissions, the conservative majority of the Supreme Court has challenged the University’s ability to select and enroll a racially diverse class.”
How leaders think the Court’s decision will affect college programs and beyond
With students of minority backgrounds struggling to find representation in STEM fields, The National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI) recognizes how ruling against affirmative action is perpetuating “centuries of unequal access” to these programs due to factors outside of students’ control.
“It is important to recognize that such policies are not about favoritism or lowering standards but rather about acknowledging the unique challenges and barriers faced by historically marginalized communities and providing them with an equal opportunity to compete,” NMSI wrote in a statement.
However, leaders of Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF) find this a prime opportunity to strengthen career preparation opportunities at HBCUs and a call to action for policymakers and business leaders to nourish its development.
“In light of this unprecedented decision, it is imperative, now more than ever, that America’s corporate leaders make an intentional effort to engage our Historically Black Colleges and Universities to ensure that their companies are finding and helping to cultivate the best and brightest students of color that our nation has to offer,” TMCF wrote in a statement.
Roth and Gonzalez from Wesleyan University believe the Court’s decision extends beyond STEM. They stressed how enriched their liberal arts education has become due to their “dynamic array of socioeconomic, religious, intellectual, geographic, and racial diversity” since different voices are at once challenging and ultimately elevating student perspectives.
The National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE) fears the implications extend outside campus confines and programs.
“What is currently clear is that our society will suffer, including from the trickle-down effect these rulings will have on our workforce,” NADOHE wrote in a statement. “We all lose when our doctors don’t reflect the diversity of the communities in which they practice; when our AI tools are built by engineers who do not have personal experience with the ways in which those systems perpetuate racial bias; when our children are sent to schools full of teachers who do not look like them; when our laws are drafted and enacted by elected officials who do not represent the backgrounds of their constituents.”
In the near term
It remains unclear to NASFAA what the ramifications will be on financial aid by striking down affirmative action. However, the University of Missouri System, by the urging of the state attorney general, is interpreting the ruling to implement “race-blind” policies and eliminate minority scholarships.
“As allowed by prior law, a small number of our programs and scholarships have used race/ethnicity as a factor for admissions and scholarships,” the system said in a statement. “Those practices will be discontinued, and we will abide by the new Supreme Court ruling concerning legal standards that applies to race-based admissions and race-based scholarships.”
Beyond race-based admissions, Harvard’s practice of legacy-based admissions, which was found to admit a disproportionate amount of white, wealthy legacy college applicants, is now being challenged. Lawyers for Civil Rights, a Boston-based non-profit, filed a lawsuit against Harvard on these grounds.
“Your family’s last name and the size of your bank account are not a measure of merit and should have no bearing on the college admissions process,” said Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, the group’s executive director, according to Fortune.
This may seem to be a rational chain reaction, considering that striking down race-based admissions was ostensibly intended to create an equitable application process.
“Legacy preferences are very difficult to justify under any circumstances,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a non-resident scholar at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and Workforce, “but they will become even harder to justify if universities can’t use race in admissions.”