Updated Jun 29, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Supreme Court strikes down affirmative action at colleges

Supporters pose for a group photo during a rally in support affirmative action policies outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. on October 31, 2022.

A rally in support of affirmative action policies outside the Supreme Court on October 31, 2022. Photo: Eric Lee for The Washington Post via Getty Images

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that colleges can't explicitly consider applicants' race in admissions, a landmark ruling that will radically transform how colleges are able to attract a diverse student body.

Why it matters: The ruling will force colleges to reimagine long-standing hallmarks of the admissions process and likely jeopardize the representation of Black and Latino students on campuses nationwide.

  • The ruling is the second in about a year that has upended decades of precedent.

Driving the news: The conservative-majority Supreme Court ruled 6-3 against the admissions processes at Harvard and the University of North Carolina, both of which give a little extra weight to applicants from certain underrepresented groups.

  • The high court sided with the conservative nonprofit Students for Fair Admissions, which argued that the universities' admissions processes discriminate against white and Asian American applicants.
  • Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson recused herself from participating in the consideration or discussion of the Harvard case because she had been on the school's board of overseers.

The big picture: The court has historically backed affirmative action programs at colleges, including most recently in 2016, when the Supreme Court rejected a challenge to a race-conscious admissions program at the University of Texas-Austin.

  • Some colleges have already had to scrap their affirmative action programs, including the University of Michigan, where Black undergraduate enrollment dropped precipitously after a state ban.
  • Regents of the University of California v. Bakke was a landmark case decided in 1978 that set the grounds for affirmative action, determining that race was constitutional criteria for admission — when considered along with other factors.
  • The court's 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger further upheld affirmative action, ruling that "the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body is not prohibited by the Equal Protection Clause."
  • In the opinion, former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote that the court expected racial preferences to no longer be necessary in admissions 25 years later.

Details: The majority opinion outlines the 14th Amendment's equality guarantees as the basis for its decision. Affirmative action is described as a discriminatory policy by the court's conservative justices.

  • "The Harvard and UNC admissions programs cannot be reconciled with the guarantees of the Equal Protection Clause," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion.
  • "Both programs lack sufficiently focused and measurable objectives warranting the use of race, unavoidably employ race in a negative manner, involve racial stereotyping, and lack meaningful end points."

The court's liberal justices argued in a dissenting opinion that educational opportunity is a prerequisite to racial equality in the U.S.

  • "This limited use of race has helped equalize educational opportunities for all students of every race and background and has improved racial diversity on college campuses," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in another dissenting opinion.
  • "Ignoring race will not equalize a society that is racially unequal. What was true in the 1860s, and again in 1954, is true today: Equality requires acknowledgment of inequality," Sotomayor wrote.

What they're saying: Cedric Merlin Powell, a law professor at the University of Louisville, said the Supreme Court rejected measures that experts saw as settled precedent in terms of college admissions, including "future leadership, adaptation, a pluralistic society, diversity in education, new knowledge."

Of note: The court's majority exempted military academies from the opinion, writing that they have "potentially distinct interests" from other universities.

  • Jackson touched on this point in her dissenting opinion: "The Court has come to rest on the bottom-line conclusion that racial diversity in higher education is only worth potentially preserving insofar as it might be needed to prepare Black Americans and other underrepresented minorities for success in the bunker, not the boardroom."

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