Affirmative Action Banned: College Admissions Standards for Race
A Responsibility Towards Inclusion
College admission is a long-held dream for countless students across the globe, from youth graduating high school to adults gearing up to join the higher education landscape. The journey towards acquiring a post-secondary degree is undoubtedly a competitive one. In the same manner that places of employment set limits for available jobs, college campuses can only offer a certain number of spots to new students every academic year. With its extensive history of racial inequity, the United States–a significant educational hub wherein lie most of the top-globally ranked universities¹–receives continual scrutiny for its policies surrounding university admittance along the lines of race and inclusion. How evenly are opportunities spread across different races? Does the college setting reflect the broader nation’s diversity? As an institution greatly driven by its investment in student empowerment, we at Tutor Zone are ready to reflect on challenging questions like these and to join families, students, and lawmakers in weighing the implications of the recent Affirmative Action Supreme Court ruling on our communities.
What is the Equal Protection Clause?
The final days of June resulted in a Supreme Court shock to colleges across the country, both private and public alike, via its decision stating that, “consider[ing] applicants’ racial background as a factor in student admissions [is] inconsistent with the equal protection clause of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment.” ² Historically, the Equal Protection Clause was ratified after the Civil War and worded for the purpose of preventing states’ discrimination against Blacks.³ However, the language of the clause has been interpreted with such variation throughout time that it has resulted in both highly unfavorable outcomes (take for example, the 1896 court case, Plessy v. Ferguson, which accepted “separate but equal” facilities for Whites and Blacks, furthering racist, Jim Crow-era segregation³) and more favorable outcomes, comparatively speaking, such as the broadened protection for all racially discriminated groups as well as protection for other vulnerable communities outside of the race-based scope, including groups classified by gender, immigration status, and sexual orientation.³ With respect to university admissions, the equal protection clause has been at play in the policies of colleges through the catchphrase “affirmative action,” sparking debate on whether race should be a legitimate factor in the consideration of admissions offices when selecting the best students for their schools.⁴
Affirmative Action in Court
Affirmative Action makes universities take a hard look at their individual practices and metrics for ensuring that the composition of their student body is designed through a lens of fairness and equal access, particularly in its intention to increase racial diversity by promoting the admission of minorities affected by discrimination.⁵ In the early stages of race-based admissions policy development, circa 1960’s-1970’s, racial quotas (banned in 1978) were lawfully in place, allowing a specific amount of students from each racial population to be admitted.⁵ Since the late 70’s and up until the recent 2023 court decision, schools have treated race as only one factor in determining either the acceptance or rejection of applicants, making affirmative action virtually legal as long as race was not the only characteristic taken into consideration when assessing a potential student.⁵ Data collected by College Board and Ballotpedia suggests that in 2015, 109 of 577 public 4-year colleges factored in race for admissions.⁵ As of June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court has effectively outlawed race considerations and affirmative action.⁵ The Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) brought two cases to court, one vs the President and Fellows of Harvard and another vs University of North Carolina, arguing against discrimination faced by white and Asian students.⁵ Interestingly enough, data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that “in most years between 2010 and 2020… the [college] enrollment rate for those who were White was higher than the rates for those who were Black, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaska Native.” ⁹ In comparison, “in 2021, the college enrollment rate among 18-to 24-year-olds was higher for those who were Asian (60 percent) than for those who were: White (38 percent); Black (37 percent); of Two or more races (35 percent); Hispanic (33 percent); and American Indian/Alaska Native (28 percent).” ⁹ As a result of the SFFA’s fight in court, the Supreme Court’s ruling will make it much more difficult for colleges already struggling to meet their diversity and equity goals.⁴
California and Prop 209
Unfortunately, there is another precedent for the vote outcome of the Supreme Court which repealed Affirmative Action. California’s approval of the 1996 Proposition 209 established “a constitutional amendment providing that government entities ‘shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.’” ⁶ Because of this, the University of California experienced “a sharp drop-off in diverse student enrollment, especially among Black and Latinx students on UC campuses and, more dramatically, at UC Berkeley and UCLA,” two of the more selective schools in the UC system.⁷ Prop 209 required all UC’s to become increasingly creative in their approach to cultivating diversity, as the schools tried to find a balance between their commitment to creating student communities where minorities felt included while also avoiding explicitly racially-conscious admissions policies.⁷ Beyond the limitations of the admissions review process, one legal approach to racial inclusion (which should be further explored, in light of the Affirmative Action ban) might be attained through efforts targeting marketing, outreach, and recruitment that “reach certain populations for racial, geographic and economic diversity.” ⁷
The Impact of Racial Inequality on Marginalized People of Color
The expansion of opportunity for minorities in college admissions–and, further down the road, in the labor market–is what’s at stake now. Marginalized social groups are more likely to experience racial inequality, defined by the U.S. Department of Treasury “as unequal distribution of resources, power, and economic opportunity across race in a society.” ⁸ The repeal of affirmative action creates a higher likelihood for communities of color to be excluded from prosperity through its elimination of avenues for colleges to directly identify and invest in historically disparaged racial groups. Changes in college campus demographics and admissions criteria, such as revised terms for acceptable content in students’ personal essay statements, are certainly imminent. Furthermore, universities must pay close attention to the experiences of minority students who are given the chance to learn and thrive in a higher education environment, as UCLA notes, “a [lack of] critical mass of same-race peers… puts them at greater risk of being stereotyped and being isolated.” ⁴ At Tutor Zone, we’re hopeful that colleges will not waver from adopting non-discriminatory methods for all qualified students to gain admission to their schools while continuing to strive for an on-campus racial diversity truly reflective of the nation’s population.
By Daisy Ocampo
How America’s Colleges Compare Internationally by Ashley Thorne | NAS
FAQ: Supreme Court ruling on race-conscious college admissions | UCLA
Interpretation: The Equal Protection Clause | Constitution Center
Here’s what happened when affirmative action ended in California : NPR
What Is Affirmative Action in College Admissions? (prepscholar.com)
Affirmative Action in Public Contracting Since Proposition 209 FINAL (ca.gov)
Affirmative action: What can other schools learn from UC Berkeley’s experience? | Berkeley News
Racial Inequality in the United States (treasury.gov)
College Enrollment Rates IES NCES National Center for Education Statistics