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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at SLU chapter.

On Jun. 29, 2023, the Supreme Court overturned 40 years of case precedent with its decision in Student for Fair Admission (SFFA) v. Harvard and Students for Fair Admission (SFFA) v. UNC

The Supreme Court was presented with the question, does race-conscious decision-making in college admissions constitute a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment? After much deliberation, the Supreme Court justices found that an admissions process that includes race as a factor violates the strict scrutiny, non-stereotyping and termination criteria established in prior affirmative action cases, chiefly Grutter v. Bollinger. The decision overturned the legal precedent of Bollinger and declared race-conscious admissions as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause. 

The decisions in SSFA v. Harvard and SFFA v. UNC eliminated the use of affirmative action, a policy dedicated to increasing workplace and educational opportunities for members of underrepresented groups. This case concluded that the implementation of affirmative action in college admissions is unconstitutional, effectively disregarding the racial discrimination and inequality that plagues our post-segregationist society. 

The term “affirmative action” was first used by President John F. Kennedy when he issued Executive Order 10925. This order required government contractors “to take affirmative to ensure that applicants are employed, and employees are treated [fairly] during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” The Supreme Court would later expand the legal implications of affirmative action through pivotal cases such as University of California v. Bakke and Grutter v. Bollinger. In California v. Bakke, the court established that race-conscious admissions for the purpose of diversity could be a “compelling state interest” as long as a racial quota was not implemented. Grutter v. Bollinger also mimicked this logic as the court concurred that race-conscious admissions do not stereotype or disadvantage members of minority groups. 

The court based its decision to overturn Grutter v. Bollinger on the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. In Chief Justice G. Roberts Jr.’s opinion, he stated, “The student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual — not on the basis of race. Many universities have for too long done just the opposite. In doing so, they have concluded, wrongly, that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built or lessons learned, but the color of their skin. Our constitutional history does not tolerate that choice.” 

The court’s decision prohibits racially-conscious admissions decisions. While the decision still allows students to discuss the impact of race on their lives, schools are not permitted to implement specific essay questions or interviews that pertain to the topic of race. This ground-breaking decision will alter the course of college admissions as we know it. 

Personally, I find that the Supreme Court should have recognized the prior precedent of their institution and recognized the history and importance of affirmative action. Prior cases have shown that race can play a role in the admissions factor as long as there is not a racial quota present or a point-based system. Since Harvard nor UNC implemented these methods, their admissions process adheres to the provisions under the 14th Amendment. Likewise, the main reason that racial consideration is important in college admissions is that race-neutral admissions would fundamentally disregard this nation’s history of racism. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson emphasized this point in her dissent, as she explained, “[Race neutral college admissions] condemns our society to never escape the past that explains how and why race matters to every concept of who ‘merits’ admission.” It is through case law and history that affirmative action even exists in the first place. 

In the past, the Supreme Court has provided some guidelines in terms of evaluating prospective students and considering race as a factor. For example, Gratz v. Bollinger stated that race can be considered in the admissions process so long as minority groups are not assigned points based on minority status. In the cases of Harvard v. SFFA and UNC v. SFFA, the admissions offices did not implement any form of racial quotas and despite popular belief, applicants were not assigned extra points for their status as a member of a minority group. While many argue that since Harvard and UNC “rank” their applicants, the universities are mistreating students. However, all colleges rank their applicants in some shape or form. While colleges often vary in how they rank students, the presence of ranking remains the same as many colleges and universities explore ways to pursue “holistic reviews” of students and associated personnel. 

In Harvard’s admissions process, they assign numerical scores to students in six categories – academic, extracurricular, athletic, school support, personal and overall. Readers are allowed to consider race when it comes to the “overall” category but it does not add or subtract numerical points. The University of Carolina also implements a similar system, in which students are ranked in different categories. However, for their process, they utilize written recommendations from readers and have a separate committee review these recommendations. During the review process, the committee is allowed to consider race. Once again, this system does not require any form of racial quota or point-based system for minority status. 

In terms of race-conscious admissions, the court has agreed that the admissions process for colleges must satisfy a “strict scrutiny standard,” meaning it must pass a high level of constitutional review. In the past, courts have supported affirmative action so long as it assists a “compelling state interest.” Former Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. asserted that affirmative action does qualify as a “compelling state interest” because “[the state] obtains the educational benefits that flow from a racially diverse student body.” When the court evaluated Harvard v. SFFA and UNC v. SFFA, their decision was influenced by an apparent lack of “strict scrutiny” and “compelling state interest” within the race-conscious admissions policies of both Harvard and the University of North Carolina. 

However, these institutions have made it explicitly clear that their affirmative action policies exist to serve minority groups and enrich the student body, serving both the state and its constituents. Harvard reaffirmed their commitment to diversity after the ruling, stating “[It is] the fundamental principle that deep and transformative teaching, learning, and research depend upon a community comprising people of many backgrounds, perspectives, and lived experiences.” The Chancellor of the University of North Carolina also explained after the decision that they are “committed to bringing together talented students with different perspectives and life experiences and to making an affordable, high-quality education accessible to the people of North Carolina and beyond.” These universities are employing these methods in order to satisfy what I consider the most important “compelling state interest” – the education of all. 

With a lack of racial and ethnic consideration in college admissions, the next question is how do colleges intend to create diverse and accessible learning environments. How will this decision impact the admissions process for members of minority groups? With the start of the first “race-neutral” college admissions process in the fall, these questions still remain unanswered. 

To answer these pressing questions, researchers at Georgetown University simulated the impact a lack of racially conscious admissions would have on diversity in college communities. The researchers created admissions simulations that removed race as a factor and relied solely on different combinations of test scores, high-school grades and socioeconomic indicators. These simulations showed that a national ban on affirmative action would decrease ethnic diversity at colleges and that in order to maintain diversity there would need to be “a fundamental redesign of the college admissions system,” which would exclude legacy admissions and athletic recruitment. These studies emphasize the essential component of recognizing race and ethnicity as a factor of an individual’s identity and the detrimental impact race-neutral admissions will have on the college admissions process. 

In addition, education policy studies have proven time and time again that the elimination of affirmative action in the admissions process decreases the admissions and enrollment of Black, Latinx and Indigenous students. For example, California schools, such as UCLA and UC Berkeley, experienced a significant decrease in diversity with a 60% drop in Black, Latinx and Indigenous students. 

In the words of Justice Sonya Sotomayor, “The majority’s vision of race neutrality will entrench racial segregation in higher education because racial inequality will persist so long as it is ignored.” Georgetown’s research and demographic studies corroborate this assertion that members of minority groups are now placed at a systemic disadvantage when it comes to college admissions. Even Justice Sotomayor stated, “I am a product of affirmative action. I am the perfect affirmative action baby. I am Puerto Rican, born and raised in the South Bronx. My test scores were not comparable to my colleagues at Princeton and Yale.” Without affirmative action, it is possible that schools will deny future lawyers, doctors and leaders on the basis of factors they cannot control. 

Affirmative action is an essential component of a holistic review of a student. Studies have shown that race-neutral admissions do not protect students from discrimination but rather perpetuate it. Most Americans assume affirmative action is a form of tokenism when in reality, affirmative action is a form of reparation. Affirmative action recognizes the impact of systemic oppression on our society, and without it, members of minority groups will continue to remain underrepresented in higher education. Rather than promoting diversity, equity and inclusion, educational institutions will remain homogeneous in nature, adhering to tradition rather than progress. 

Camille is a psychology and criminology student at Saint Louis University. Originally from Memphis, Camille likes to spend her time reading a good book, taking photos, or sipping an iced lavender latte with oat milk. She is an avid lover of pasta and cats.