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The Supreme Court Decision on Affirmative Action

Understanding the Historical Relevance Relating to Affirmative Action Policies

Affirmative action policies allow universities to take an integrated approach, including one’s race and cultural background, to help build diverse student populations. Universities across the country recognize that affirmative action works toward achieving a more diversified student body population. Affirmative action and case law date back to the Reconstruction Era (1863-1877). [1,2]

President John F. Kennedy created a special committee, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which helped shape the Civil Rights Movement platform.[2] The Civil Rights Act of 1964 instituted policies to prohibit racial and gender discrimination in the workplace.[2] Subsequently, in 1965, executive orders issued by President Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon were set in motion reaffirming the end of discriminatory practices in the workplace and beyond. [2]

Affirmative action-related case law has been challenged many times throughout recent decades. [2] Most recently, in 2016, the Supreme Court upheld a race-conscious ruling in an affirmative action case indicating that schools that race could stand as a tool towards admission. [3]

Not all universities are tasked with upholding affirmative action admission policies, as it is reflected primarily in publicly funded institutions. However, Title IV of the Civil Rights Act specifies that any private colleges and universities that receive federal funding must abstain from discriminating against individuals based on race, color, or national origin. [3] Currently, nine states have opted to ban affirmative action and the use of racial backgrounds as an enrollment consideration. [16]

Could Affirmative Action in College Admissions be Eradicated?

On October 31, 2022, the Supreme Court heard challenging arguments related to two landmark cases: Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) v. President and Fellows of Harvard, and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina. Based on these arguments, the Supreme Court will rule to uphold or prohibit the universities’ ability to allow race as a consideration in college admissions. [1]

The SFFA, organized by Edward Blum, is an anti-affirmative action organization with the goal of unraveling any efforts to achieve diversity in notably selective universities. The Supreme Court has twice rejected Blum’s attempts at swaying the decision and upheld the affirmative action policies granting institutions of higher learning permission to consider race as a factor. [1]

However, the predominance of conservative justices may indicate lean toward the end of race-conscious admission policies. Chief Justice John Roberts, who was appointed by President Bush in 2005, has previously championed the movement toward a colorblind society and race-neutral admission policies across the board. [1]

The Court heard several arguments related to both sides and is expected to deliver a result in June. Should the Court rule in favor of anti-affirmative action admission policies, the consideration of race as part of an academic review process would be rendered unconstitutional. [1]

Moreover, the greater implications would translate to dramatically reduced admission rates to selective universities for students of color. Analytics performed by EdSource shows that the Black, Hispanic, and Native American college enrollment statistics have dwindled considerably in states where affirmative action has been banned. [1]

Relevant Statistics

  • In 2017, The New York Times analyzed 100 of the most highly selective academic colleges for their race and ethnic population breakdown. Black students represented only 6 percent of first-year students at these schools. Hispanics represented approximately 22%, and whites and Asians were found to be overrepresented. [12]
  • In 1976, the white student population represented 80% of all U.S. college students. By 2018, that number dropped to 42%.[13]
  • Enrollment statistics taken from 468 of the most highly funded and selective academic institutions are 75 percent white. [15]
  • Only 19% of Black and Hispanic students with above-average admission exam scores attend a selective college. In comparison, 31 percent of white students with similar admission test scores attend a selective college. [6]
  • A 2015 report produced by the College Board and Ballotpedia estimated that 100 public universities and 59 private universities currently use race as an admission tool. [7]
  • 6 out of 10 Americans support a ban on affirmative action and race-considerate admission practices. [8]
  • In 2012, the Civil Rights Project published a study citing that the previous ban on affirmative action decreased Black student enrollment by 25% and Hispanic student enrollment by approximately 20%. [7]

What Affected Populations Might Expect Should the Supreme Court Abolish Affirmative Action in College Admissions

Should the Supreme Court abolish affirmative action policies, it does not necessarily mean the end of applying holistic admission criteria, but universities will have to adopt a newly defined set of admission practices. Higher educational institutions will still retain the ability to engage in recruitment strategies that attract students from diverse backgrounds.

Advocates for affirmative action policies are hopeful that Universities will eliminate traditional testing formats, such as the SAT and ACT, to help offset admission criteria that are historically known as racially biased practices. [1]

States like Texas already guarantee admission to the top 10% of all high-school students, referencing it as the Top 10% Plan (TTPP). However, it is not conclusive if TTPP works to boost minority admission statistics. [9]

The U.S. Department of Education states that Texas enrollment figures indicate that the number of enrolled Black students declined to 246,342 in 2019 from 296,413 in 2011. Comparatively, the enrollment numbers for white students decreased in the same period from 784,382 to 628,916. [14]

Alternatives to help mitigate Affirmative Action policies may include enhanced tuition assistance for low-income students and expanded scholarship programs that target vulnerable populations. [7] Many universities that support the ban on affirmative action have instituted specialized recruitment and retention programs and suggest they have been able to sustain adequate representation of Black and Hispanic student populations. [14]

The Future Outlook

Many speculate that the end of affirmative action policies may create a domino effect and spill into other areas like faculty placements and private employment practices. [10] It is too soon to anticipate how exactly the ban on affirmative action may play out.