Supreme Court Ruling on Affirmative Action

In a historic ruling on June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court declared, with a 6-3 majority vote in the University of North Carolina (UNC) case and a 6-2 majority vote in the Harvard dispute (Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson recused herself from the Harvard proceedings), that the affirmative action admission policies of both universities are unconstitutional.

In this blog post, we will explore the implications of the Supreme Court’s decision, including its impact on college admissions and the ongoing debate surrounding affirmative action.

The Majority Opinion and Ruling

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, asserted that the affirmative action programs at Harvard and UNC involved racial stereotyping, lacked meaningful endpoints, and used race in a negative manner. Roberts emphasized that eliminating racial discrimination meant eliminating it entirely, suggesting that race should not be a factor in admissions decisions.

The majority opinion also highlighted the importance of treating applicants as individuals and focusing on their unique qualities and abilities rather than their race. According to Roberts, race could still be considered if tied directly to an applicant’s personal experiences, heritage, or cultural motivations that demonstrate qualities such as leadership.

The Dissenting Opinion

Dissenting justices, who were appointed by the Democratic party, expressed concerns that the ruling would make it nearly impossible for colleges and universities to consider race as a factor in admissions. Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued that the court was imposing its preferred application format on the country, dismissing the reality that race continues to play a significant role in students’ lives. Sotomayor claimed that the ruling delivered a false promise and failed to acknowledge the importance of diversity.

What Remains Unchanged

While the ruling declared that considering race as the sole factor in admissions decisions violated the 14th Amendment, it did not eliminate all avenues for promoting diversity on college campuses. Justices noted that colleges and universities could still consider other factors to achieve diversity. It is worth mentioning that the ruling primarily affects highly selective institutions, as many colleges admit the majority of their applicants.

The Impact on College Admissions

The recent Supreme Court decision has the potential to reshape the college admissions landscape by placing greater emphasis on holistic evaluation methods.  By considering a broader range of factors such as personal essays, extracurricular activities, letters of recommendation, and academic achievements, institutions aim to gain a comprehensive understanding of each applicant. This approach enables them to identify individuals who not only possess strong academic abilities but also have unique experiences, perspectives, and qualities that can enrich the campus community.

Personal essays and statements gain even more prominence as essential components of college applications. These essays provide students with a valuable opportunity to showcase their unique perspectives, experiences, and aspirations. Admissions officers will pay closer attention to how applicants articulate their thoughts, reflect on their personal growth, and articulate their motivations. By exploring their background, achievements, and aspirations, students can effectively demonstrate their potential to contribute to the campus community in diverse and meaningful ways.

Moreover, the ruling amplifies the importance of evaluating an applicant’s extracurricular activities as part of the holistic admissions process. Engaging in extracurricular pursuits allows students to develop a range of skills, demonstrate leadership, and make a positive impact within their communities. Admissions officers will carefully consider an applicant’s involvement in clubs, sports, volunteer work, or artistic endeavors. These activities serve as tangible evidence of an applicant’s passions, commitment, and ability to contribute beyond academic achievements.

The Continuing Debate on Affirmative Action

The Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action once again stokes the ongoing debate surrounding equal opportunity and diversity in education. Proponents of affirmative action argue that it is a necessary tool to address historical injustices and promote diversity on campuses, while opponents contend that it violates the principle of equal treatment under the law.

What's Next?

The Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action policies at Harvard and UNC carries significant implications for college admissions and the broader discussion on racial equality. As colleges and universities adapt their policies to comply with the decision, there are a few potential scenarios to consider: 

  • Reevaluation of admissions criteria: In response to the Supreme Court ruling and the broader debate on affirmative action, colleges and universities might consider reassessing their admissions criteria. This could involve exploring alternative approaches that prioritize individual merit and achievements, such as placing less emphasis on standardized test scores and more emphasis on a holistic evaluation of applicants, including their personal essays, extracurricular activities, community involvement…etc.
  • Possible implementation of socioeconomic-based affirmative action: Institutions could potentially explore the implementation of affirmative action policies that focus on socioeconomic factors rather than solely considering race. This approach aims to address broader inequalities and provide equal opportunities for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, potentially reshaping the composition of future student bodies.
  • Expansion of outreach programs: In an effort to increase diversity and inclusivity, educational institutions might explore expanding outreach programs. This could involve forging partnerships with local schools, community organizations, and mentorship programs to reach underrepresented communities and provide guidance and support to prospective applicants.
  • Possible enhancement of implicit bias training: In light of ongoing discussions surrounding unconscious biases, admissions officers and faculty members could potentially undergo enhanced implicit bias training. This training could aim to improve awareness of biases that may impact admissions decisions, fostering a more equitable evaluation process.
  • Potential focus on fostering inclusive campus environments: Institutions may prioritize efforts to create inclusive campus environments where students from all backgrounds feel valued and supported. This could involve initiatives such as promoting cultural diversity, organizing events that celebrate different cultures, establishing affinity groups, and providing resources for marginalized students.
  • Exploration of strengthened pipeline programs: Collaboration with K-12 schools to establish pipeline programs could be considered as a way to provide academic support, mentoring, and college preparation for students from underrepresented communities. Such programs have the potential to bridge educational gaps and increase the pool of qualified applicants from marginalized backgrounds.
  • Possible research and assessment efforts: Institutions might engage in ongoing research and assessment to evaluate the effectiveness of their admissions policies and initiatives aimed at promoting diversity and equal opportunity. This could involve collecting data on student outcomes and experiences to identify areas for improvement and inform future decision-making.
  • Potential engagement in public dialogue: Institutions could potentially participate in public discussions and engage with policymakers, advocacy groups, and other stakeholders. By actively contributing to the dialogue on affirmative action, they can help shape the future of admissions policies and advocate for strategies that foster diversity and inclusion in higher education.