The Supreme Court heard arguments in October in two cases that could have drastic impacts on the way that race is factored into the college admissions process.
The two cases, both brought forward by the conservative activist group Students for Fair Admissions, challenge whether affirmative action programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina unfairly discriminate against Asian and white applicants for the sake of a diverse student body.
Affirmative action programs have been protected by precedent going back 20 years and were reaffirmed as recently as 2016. Even so, the court’s supermajority looks posed to strike down these measures in exchange for race-neutral alternatives.
This editorial will not be devoted to complex legal arguments over the scope of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause or the intention of Brown v. Board of Education. Many other news outlets have already presented those facts in impressive detail.
We are instead going to look at the reasoning for and effects of affirmative action programs and discuss what the impact of their removal could mean for both college admissions and other industries that factor race into their hiring processes.
Affirmative action was first implemented by colleges and universities in the 1960s in an effort to assuage the racial inequality and exclusion of Black students in higher education.
But these programs have evolved over time to form what Harvard calls a “holistic” selection process in which race is one of many factors that may place one academically equal student ahead of another.
Harvard’s website has an article from 2018 that outlines the benefits of affirmative action programs. According to data from a group of selective colleges, a race-conscious application process has allowed beneficiaries to have higher incomes and a larger number of professional degrees than their peers who did not benefit from affirmative action programs.
Harvard also states that the data show higher levels of civility and more positive racial attitudes in non-minority students who were classmates with affirmative action beneficiaries.
Opponents of affirmative action will often focus on the fairness of the admissions process itself rather than the potential benefits such a system will have on those who get in.
Conservatives counter that race-conscious practices negatively affect students of other races who are not given an edge in the admissions process, a sentiment that is at the core of the Students for Fair Admissions’ argument in the current cases.
If the Supreme Court disallows colleges from using race-conscious practices in their admissions process, these universities will likely resort to race-neutral alternatives in an attempt to continue creating diverse student bodies.
The issue is, most data show that these race-neutral options do not work.
A study published by the American Educational Research Association found that states that outlawed affirmative action practices saw “persistent declines in the share of underrepresented minorities among students admitted to and enrolling in public flagship universities in these states.”
The paper notes that this may indicate that race-neutral efforts to increase diversity have largely failed at bridging the gap caused by the lack of affirmative action programs.
The Supreme Court will likely not release its final decision on the cases until well into 2023, but it is more likely than not that they will overturn precedent and block colleges from using race-conscious measures in the future. As we await the verdict, we can only predict how both the classroom and the workplace may be impacted.