What’s at Stake with the Supreme Court’s Affirmative Action Decision?


Sara Stewart, Contributor

On October 31st, arguments began for two cases brought before the Supreme Court by the group Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) concerning the role of race in college admissions—one of them against Harvard and the other against the University of North Carolina (UNC). SFFA sued Harvard in 2014, challenging the university’s consideration of race in admissions and claiming it to be unlawful in causing discrimination against Asian-American applicants. Given the similar nature of the UNC case, the plaintiffs argued that the two should be combined. In both, SFFA questions if affirmative action is lawful given that alternative, race-neutral methods are available in admissions processes.

Affirmative action is the practice of actively taking steps to increase the opportunities and representation of historically underrepresented groups. It is used in education and employment as a way to ensure equity, acknowledging that not everyone is presented with the same privileges and opportunities, so those who need more should get more. Historically, affirmative action has been implemented in educational settings to increase diversity, allowing race to be a factor that is considered in college admissions and encouraging outreach programs that provide additional resources for prospective students from marginalized groups.

Proponents of affirmative action argue that its impact on higher education has been beneficial for students. According to a report from the Equal Justice Society, the enrollment of Latinx, Asian and Pacific Islander students doubled between 1976 and 2008 with the help of affirmative action, with Black enrollment increasing by 39 percent and Indigenous enrollment by 46 percent within that same period. 

The impact of affirmative action goes beyond demographics. Greater diversity in higher education has been shown to reinforce critical thinking, engagement, productivity, and problem-solving, while allowing all students to develop a deeper respect for other cultures.

The likely end of affirmative action threatens these promising trends. Given its conservative majority, the Supreme Court seems prepared to overturn its prior ruling in the 2003 case of Grutter v. Bollinger, which allowed for the use of race as a factor in the college admissions process. 

A total of nine states, including California, have already prohibited using affirmative action in public higher education. Since 1996, under Proposition 209, California government institutions have been barred from reviewing race, sex, and ethnicity in the processes of admissions and employment. The initiative’s restrictions apply to the state’s public universities, the California State University and the University of California. However, private universities in California and across the country can still consider race in their admissions processes. If the Supreme Court decides in favor of the plaintiffs in both cases, public and private colleges in all 50 states will not be allowed to perform race-conscious admissions.

While all students could end up feeling the effects of this change, it is the underrepresented students who will be most heavily impacted by the court’s imminent ruling. Many experts are concerned that eliminating race-conscious admissions will lead to a significant drop in the enrollment of minorities, given that it is already occurring in the nine states which currently prohibit affirmative action. 

The University of California has already stated in a brief filed with the Supreme Court on behalf of Harvard and UNC that enrollment of students from underrepresented groups plummeted after the passage of Proposition 209, and that achieving its diversity goals has been difficult without affirmative action. This may become a reality for many colleges in the United States following the Supreme Court’s ruling. The court is expected to make its decision in June 2023.