The Supreme Court’s ban on affirmative action means colleges will struggle to meet goals of diversity and equal opportunity
After extensive deliberation, the Supreme Court has delivered a landmark ruling that effectively prohibits the use of race-based affirmative action in college admissions. Race-blind admissions processes will further exacerbate existing inequalities and undermine the recognition of the unique challenges that Black, Hispanic, and Native American students encounter throughout the admissions process. By disregarding the significance of race, these approaches risk creating a wider divide between equal opportunity and communities of color.
This decision marks a significant setback for colleges, which have relied on this tool for over 40 years to enhance racial diversity on their campuses and compensate for decades of both explicit and implicit race-based exclusion. Colleges must now explore options like targeted recruitment programs and using other metrics such as household income and wealth as substitutes for race-based admissions. However, flagship schools from states that previously banned affirmative action and used these alternative tactics have a poor track record of success in achieving meaningful diversity gains in their student body without using affirmative action.
Lessons from flagship state schools
Over the years, a total of nine states have implemented bans on affirmative action. This policy shift forced top educational institutions like the University of California and the University of Michigan to abandon race-based admissions and find new ways to admit diverse student bodies. As a result, these universities made significant efforts to foster racial diversity by investing hundreds of millions of dollars in outreach programs. However, according to two amicus briefs in support of affirmative action filed by these two universities last year to the Supreme Court, these endeavors have proven to be ineffective. Both university systems revealed perpetually low enrollment rates among students of color despite their significant investment in alternative ways to boost diversity among the applicant pool and student body.
Following California’s implementation of Proposition 209 in 1996, which banned the use of racial preferences in admissions, the state experienced a significant decline in enrollment rates across its educational institutions. Most notable was the decline in Black student enrollment at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). In 2006, only 96 students (less than 2%) self-identified as Black out of a freshman class of nearly 5,000 students.
Although enrollment rates have shown some improvement since then, disparities in enrollment persist. For example, a mere 228 students (3%) at the University of California, Berkeley identified themselves as Black out of a nearly 7,000-strong freshman class in the fall of 2022. By comparison, the 2021–2022 high school graduating class in California had approximately 8,700 Black students that met the requirements for admission into the University of California system. These limited strides in fostering diversity have come at a substantial cost to the University of California system, exceeding half a billion dollars in investments since 2004.
Likewise, at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, enrollment rates for students of color experienced a decline following the state’s adoption of Proposal 2, commonly known as the Affirmative Action Initiative, in 2006. This voter referendum also led to a state constitutional ban on race-conscious admissions. By 2021, Black enrollment stood at a mere 4%–a three percentage point drop from 2006. This is despite the growth of college-age African Americans in Michigan from 16% to 19%. Clearly, the University of Michigan has encountered challenges in ensuring that their flagship school reflects the diverse demographics of the state.
The ban on affirmative action has made it more arduous for many universities to achieve proportional representation of underrepresented groups and imposes new constraints in racial equity and equal opportunity in higher education.
Class and wealth are not adequate measures in capturing diversity
As an alternative to race-based admissions, certain schools and advocates have suggested considering socioeconomic status—including wealth—as a criterion for preference in college admissions, irrespective of race. However, this race-blind alternative falls short in capturing the full scope of what race-based admissions could achieve. Focusing solely on socioeconomic status fails to address the specific obstacles that affirmative action was intended to combat.
One significant drawback of this race-blind approach is its potential exclusion of deserving middle-class Black, Brown, and Native American students. These students may not meet the criteria for preferential treatment based on low socioeconomic status, despite facing racial disparities and encountering systemic barriers that hinder their educational opportunities. By overlooking the importance of race, this alternative fails to acknowledge the need to uplift marginalized racial and ethnic groups who may not fit neatly into a socioeconomic-based framework.
Moreover, according to Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America and the recently released Just Action: How to challenge segregation enacted under the color of law, when considering wealth-based admissions, it is important to acknowledge the significantly larger population of white Americans compared with African Americans. While a higher proportion of the Black population falls into the low-wealth category, the potential pool of low-wealth applicants would still consist of a significantly larger number of white students. According to Federal Reserve data from 2019, 31% of youths from households in the bottom quarter of the national wealth distribution (with a net worth of $12,400 or less) are Black. Even if preference was given to students in the bottom half of the wealth distribution (with a net worth of $121,700 or less), a smaller proportion of the eligible low-wealth applicants—24%—would be Black. Despite the belief that Black people may be overrepresented in a wealth-based program, the alternative would still be flawed in capturing many Black students.
Class-based admissions based on household income have also been a popular alternative to race-based admissions, but similarly to wealth, this criteria would fall short of the diversity objectives set by admissions offices, and undermine efforts to address discrimination. According to a study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, selective colleges that are prohibited from considering race and ethnicity in admissions decisions may regain some level of racial and ethnic diversity by adopting class-conscious admissions practices. However, the study highlights the considerable difficulties these institutions would encounter in achieving student bodies that accurately reflect the demographic diversity of their state’s high school population, which typically exhibits higher rates of enrollment across different racial groups compared with universities. The findings suggest that maintaining or surpassing existing representation without race-conscious admissions would necessitate a complete overhaul of the admissions system, requiring changes in applicant evaluation and consideration criteria. While socioeconomic status can be a relevant factor in addressing certain forms of disadvantage—and college education should absolutely be more accessible to low- and middle-income students of all races—socioeconomic status alone cannot fully replace the multifaceted impact of race-based admissions.
The pending Supreme Court decision on student loan debt forgiveness adds an additional layer of complexity to using socioeconomic status as a proxy for race in achieving diversity. Student loan debt is yet another barrier hindering students of color from accessing higher education. Without student loan debt forgiveness, students of color hailing from low-income backgrounds encounter even greater disparities in economic outcomes. Irrespective of whether these students gain admission to universities based on their socioeconomic status, the intersection of student loan debt, structural racism, and poverty magnifies the existing gaps in their ability to afford and enroll in higher education institutions. This could impede efforts to achieve a more inclusive and diverse student body based on race and socioeconomic factors.
The complexities of racial discrimination and the need for targeted measures to address historical injustices cannot be adequately captured by a race-blind approach alone. It is crucial to recognize the unique and ongoing struggles faced by underrepresented racial and ethnic groups and continue to advocate for holistic solutions that address both socioeconomic disparities and the significance of race in admissions policies. Affirmative action programs in higher education came into existence specifically to rectify the history of race-based exclusion, legally enforced segregation, and quota systems that capped the number of nonwhite or other minority students permitted to enroll at colleges and universities across the country. This history of discrimination had everything to do with barring students based on race, regardless of their class, and led to many of the enrollment disparities we still see today at many institutions.
What can universities do?
The adoption of race-blind admissions would not provide greater benefits to students of color compared with the existing impact of race-based admissions. Instead, any alternative approach would likely harm the enrollment rates of these marginalized groups and prove financially burdensome to implement. It is imperative to recognize the significance of race in addressing systemic inequalities and to prioritize inclusive measures that safeguard access to higher education for underrepresented communities.
Universities should persist in advocating for affirmative action specifically for Black, Brown, and Native American applicants. In an open letter issued a month before the Court’s ruling, the presidents of 27 liberal arts colleges stated, “To fulfill the promise of economic and social mobility, we need to continue rectifying the systemic barriers that have kept so many talented students of color out of higher education.” Rothstein argues that university presidents defending affirmative action programs on the grounds of rectifying past injustices could sway lower-court judges and dissenting justices to support affirmative action as a valid remedy. This approach may also pave the way for future Supreme Court justices to reject race-blind ideologies that currently impede reform efforts. Ultimately, maintaining intersectional admissions processes that include race is essential to promoting equity and redressing systemic barriers to higher education.
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