The Nation and the World

Supreme Court Considers Use of Race in College Admissions

The Supreme Court heard the case of Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) v. Harvard and SFFA v. University of North Carolina (UNC) in October 2022, and the decision is expected to come out this spring. The final judgment of the cases may have significant and far-reaching implications on the use of race in college admissions.

The central controversy is whether Harvard’s and UNC’s admissions process, which takes race into account as one of many factors, breaches Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This legislation forbids racial discrimination in any program or activity that receives federal funding.

The plaintiff in the case, SFFA, was founded in 2014 by conservative activist Edward Blum. SFFA argues that Harvard’s and UNC’s admissions processes give too much weight to race, which is discriminatory and unfairly benefits other groups at the expense of Asian Americans. 

In 2014, SFFA filed the lawsuits against the two universities as an ongoing campaign aimed at reversing the ruling in Grutter v Bollinger, a significant case from 2003. Grutter upheld the use of affirmative action in a state university, which allowed universities to consider a student’s race among other factors in the admissions process.

Harvard and UNC defend their admissions process as a holistic approach that takes into account not only race, but also academic achievement, extracurricular activities, and personal qualities. The universities argue that through this approach, they address the historical and ongoing effects of discrimination and provide opportunities for underrepresented minorities. They claim that consideration of race is necessary to achieve a diverse student body and to promote educational goals like cross-cultural understanding. 

The Supreme Court’s new conservative super-majority may have a significant influence on its final decision. Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Clarence Thomas, and Justice Samuel Alito, three of the court’s more senior conservatives, previously dissented from affirmative-action decisions. Now, three relatively new Trump appointees, Justice Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett, join them in the conservative majority. 

Cara Hanig, Director of Dana Hall College Counseling Department, has been in this field since 2006. She noted the “frozen state” college counseling field is in right now while waiting for the decision, which she said “truly will change everything that is done.”

If the court rules in favor of the SFFA, it could limit the ability of universities to consider race as a factor in admissions. On the other hand, if the court rules in favor of Harvard and UNC, it could continue the precedent that allows universities to continue using race in admissions, as long as it is one of many factors taken into account.

Ms. Hanig points out that the interesting part of this decision is it “so much depends on the way it’s worded.” When she gave a presentation about this case to the school in January for the Martin Luther King Jr. Convocation, Ms. Hanig noted “the different degrees to which the Supreme Court could say you are no longer allowed to consider race in college admissions.” It could be as simple as not allowing the colleges to ask via a checkbox for students to identify their race. However, if it becomes a deeper ruling where it says that a student cannot disclose their race through their experience, then it would be a significant game-changer. 

“I‘ve seen students writing so beautifully and compellingly about doing arts that intersect with their Asian identity or working on a project that intersects with their Black identity. It is really difficult to think about all those beautiful pieces of writing not even having the chance to exist.” Ms. Hanig expressed her concerns about this decision. “Not everybody thinks about race, but for those who do think about their race and their ethnicity as a significant marker of their identity [to not] be able to share that feels pretty sad to me.” 

As the Supreme Court issues its final decision, more questions follow. For example, Multicultural Visit Programs, which specifically target underrepresented students in higher education and provide them with financial support to visit college campuses, may disappear, according to Ms. Hanig.

Ms. Hanig also makes clear that this decision could greatly impact how college counselors in Dana Hall counsel Dana students. However, high schools “have to wait for the colleges to take that ruling and respond and put new things into place, then we will be able to say what will we be doing.” 

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