US Supreme Court Strikes Down Affirmative Action, Prompting Colleges to Seek Alternative Paths for Diversity

On June 29, 2023, the US Supreme Court delivered a groundbreaking ruling, striking down affirmative action in college admissions. This decision had a profound impact on the higher education community, compelling colleges across the nation to actively explore alternative avenues for promoting student diversity. While leaders of numerous universities expressed disappointment, they also expressed optimism, asserting their commitment to finding alternative methods to admit more Black and Hispanic students, despite evidence indicating that eliminating affirmative action often leads to a decline in their enrollment numbers.

President Biden’s Response:

US Supreme Court

President Joe Biden strongly disagreed with the US Supreme Court’s decision and directed the Education Department to explore policies that could assist colleges in building diverse student bodies. He specifically criticized policies such as legacy preferences, which provide admission boosts to the children of alumni and typically benefit white, affluent students. President Biden emphasized the importance of finding a new path forward that aligns with the law, protects diversity, and expands opportunities for underrepresented groups.

Challenges Faced by Colleges:

The elimination of affirmative action presents significant challenges for colleges striving to maintain diversity. Many colleges witnessed a decline in enrollment among Black and Hispanic students, particularly at selective institutions that historically had predominantly white populations, when race-neutral policies were implemented. For example, Amherst College estimated that adopting a fully race-neutral admissions process would result in a significant decrease in their Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous student populations.

Preparation and Strategies of Colleges:

Colleges have been preparing for the potential rollback of affirmative action due to the conservative composition of the US Supreme Court. In response, some institutions have considered adding more essays to gain a better understanding of applicants’ backgrounds, as encouraged by the court’s ruling. Others plan to increase their recruiting efforts in racially diverse areas or explore the option of admitting more transfer students from community colleges to ensure a diverse student body.

Supreme Court’s Decision and Background:

US Supreme Court

US Supreme Court’s decision was a response to challenges at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, where lower courts had upheld their admission systems, dismissing claims of discrimination against white and Asian American applicants. However, during US Supreme Court arguments, the six conservative justices expressed doubts about the practice of affirmative action. As a result, the decision marked a departure from previous US Supreme Court rulings dating back to 1978 that had upheld affirmative action as a means to foster diversity.

Impact of Affirmative Action Bans in States:

Several states had already banned affirmative action prior to the US Supreme Court’s decision. California became the first state to implement such a ban in 1996, and Idaho was the most recent in 2020. In Michigan, after voters rejected affirmative action in 2006, the University of Michigan shifted its focus to recruiting low-income students and offering college preparation programs. However, despite these efforts, the share of Black and Hispanic undergraduates did not fully rebound from the decline experienced after the ban.

Similarly, the University of California witnessed a decline in Black and Hispanic enrollments after a statewide ban on affirmative action in 1996. While the university system implemented various programs aimed at supporting low-income and first-generation college students, the promise of admission to the top 9% of students from each high school across the state did not significantly expand racial diversity at highly competitive campuses like Berkeley and UCLA.

Opponents’ Arguments and Counterpoints:

Opponents of affirmative action argue that some states have thrived without it. After Oklahoma banned the practice in 2012, the state’s flagship university reported no severe decline in minority enrollments and even saw an increase in Hispanic, Asian, and Native American students in recent freshman classes. However, it’s worth noting that the share of Black students did experience a slight decrease.

Concerns and Potential Changes:

Colleges now fear that without affirmative action, they may inadvertently admit fewer students of color, leading to a self-perpetuating cycle of declining racial diversity. This concern arises because diversity benefits the entire campus, exposing students to different perspectives and preparing them for a diverse workforce. In addition to race, the Supreme Court’s decision may prompt colleges to reconsider other admissions policies. Experts suggest eliminating policies that favor white students, such as legacy preferences, early admission, and heavy reliance on standardized test scores, to attract and admit underserved populations.

Conclusion:

US Supreme Court’s ruling striking down affirmative action in college admissions has left colleges scrambling to find alternative approaches to promote diversity. While colleges remain optimistic about finding new methods, the experiences of states that previously outlawed affirmative action highlight the challenges they may face in achieving diverse student bodies. It is clear that careful consideration and the development of effective alternative strategies are essential to ensure that colleges continue to foster inclusive and diverse environments for all students.

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