Jun 29, 2023 - News

What SCOTUS' affirmative action ruling means for Illinois colleges

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Illinois higher education officials are vowing to continue diversity efforts in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision striking down the use of affirmative action.

Why it matters: How colleges respond and reimagine their admissions processes now will determine the representation of students of color on campus and will affect their sense of belonging at school.

Catch up fast: The conservative-majority Supreme Court's Thursday ruling blocks schools from explicitly considering race in admissions, overturning more than 40 years of precedent.

  • The court sided with the conservative nonprofit Students for Fair Admissions, which argued that Harvard and the University of North Carolina's admissions processes discriminate against white and Asian American applicants.

The big picture: Nine states had already banned affirmative action in universities ahead of the Supreme Court ruling, Axios' Ivana Saric reports.

  • Schools that had done so saw "pretty precipitous drops" in Black, Latino and Indigenous enrollment at their campuses, said Julie Park, an associate professor of education at the University of Maryland.

What they're saying: "This ruling is an attack on people of color, particularly Black people, who face discrimination through multiple facets of American society," the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE), which is largely appointed by the governor, said in a statement Thursday.

  • "A college education is one of the leading predictors for getting out of poverty," the statement said, "and this decision by the Supreme Court will negatively impact people of color seeking economic mobility — something that already seems out of reach — for generations to come."

Zoom in: Several local universities pledged Thursday to continue prioritizing diversity initiatives, though they did not share specific plans.

  • Northwestern University president Michael Schill called the ruling "problematic" and noted "the doubt it casts on the importance of a diverse class in enhancing our educational mission."
  • "Bringing together people of different backgrounds, viewpoints and experiences enables us to learn from one another and propels our research, arts and discovery to new levels," Schill said in a statement.
  • The University of Illinois will "remain committed to promoting access, equity and inclusion for everyone and will conduct university business in a manner that is consistent with the Supreme Court's decision," university spokesperson Robin Kaler said in a statement.

Between the lines: Chief Justice John Roberts left open at least one avenue for admissions officers to consider race.

  • Roberts wrote in his majority opinion that nothing prohibits "universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise."

By the numbers: While college applications from minority students rose 32% from 2019 to 2020, per Common app data, and Latino enrollment in four-year institutions jumped 287% from 2000 to 2020, according to Pew, the U.S. still has a big racial enrollment gap.

  • At the current rate, it would take about 70 years for all not-for-profit institutions to reflect underrepresented students in their incoming student population, per analysis last year by McKinsey & Co.

What we're watching: Other ways schools could "compensate for losing the ability to take race into account" in their admissions processes include considering an applicant's income and the racial makeup of their ZIP code or high school, sociologist Anthony Chen told Northwestern's Institute for Policy Research.

  • Park told Axios that colleges can also take a holistic approach to assessing applications, deemphasizing the importance of standardized tests, and giving greater weight to socioeconomic status.

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