ANALYSIS: What comes next? Questions after the affirmative action decision
The News walks through critical questions about future admissions models at selective universities in the wake of the affirmative action repeal.
Rachel Shin, Contributing Photographer
Ruling against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina in two separate cases, the Supreme Court declared affirmative action unconstitutional on June 29. While the decision has sent shockwaves through the ecosystem of admissions to selective universities, it remains unclear how changes will actually be implemented — and what new programs these schools may instate or repeal in response.
Here, the News works through six dominant questions about post-affirmative action admissions, which we intend to explore and answer over the course of future coverage.
1. When can schools consider race?
According to the ruling, should applicants personally decide to describe their experiences with race and racial identity, schools can consider such information if it is “concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability that the particular applicant can contribute to the university.”
The phrasing is somewhat vague, as it is unclear what a concrete tie to quality of character really entails. Does this mean that schools can consider an applicant’s racial identity if they include information thereof in their admissions essays? Or are schools allowed to deduce an applicant’s racial or ethnic background — and determine it to be sufficiently meaningful — in other ways, such as based on a student’s activities or awards lists? Perhaps an applicant is a member of a Minority Scholars Program, a leader of a Black Student Union, a longtime Indian classical dancer or involved in some other activity that reveals information about their racial identity without them spelling it outright. Can it be considered then?
If racial consideration is constitutionally permissible when students write about their identity in their essays, what is to stop selective schools from adopting — as some, including Duke University, already have — an additional optional supplement that specifically asks students to write about their lived experience, which could include racial or ethnic characteristics?
2. Quantitatively, how will this affect racial diversity at selective schools? What about economic diversity?
After the Court’s ruling last month, Morehouse College President David Thomas ’78 GRD ’86 wrote in a June 30 letter to the Morehouse community that the decision was already estimated to result in a 40 percent decrease in Black enrollment at Yale. Thomas is also a member of the Yale Corporation, also known as the University’s Board of Trustees.
Thomas declined to comment further and has not shared where the 40 percent figure originated.
Prior to the Court’s ruling, eight states already had affirmative action bans in place: California since 1996, Florida since 1999, Michigan since 2006, Nebraska since 2008, Arizona since 2010, New Hampshire since 2012, Oklahoma since 2012 and Idaho since 2020. Texas imposed a similar ban from 1996 through 2003, as did Washington from 1998 until last year.
Over the roughly 25 years since California ended race-conscious admissions in its public universities, Black, Latine and Indigenous student populations have declined, according to demographics reports. In Michigan, Black student enrollment dropped to just 4 percent on the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus after the statewide ban went into effect.
What will the racial makeup of future accepted classes of Yalies look like? And how might this relate to or affect economic diversity within the student body?
Yale and many of its peer institutions practice need-blind admissions (though the University is part of the group of 17 selective schools facing a lawsuit alleging that not all members of the bloc are truly need-blind). While it is far from a strict one-to-one relationship, given national correlations between race and income, it seems likely that a bar on race-conscious admissions may also impact socioeconomic stratification within classes of admitted students. But it is not yet clear exactly how.
3. Why are military schools exempt?
In a brief footnote of the 237-page document, Chief Justice John Roberts — who delivered the majority opinion — noted that the ruling does not apply to military academies. He said this is because no military academy was a party to the case and that there may be “distinct interests” at play.
An article earlier this month from CBS News cites an amicus brief filed by 35 former military leaders to hypothesize that the exemption may have been carved out for national security intentions. In the brief, the authors argued that diversity within the military officer corps is essential because the forces that they lead are racially diverse, and placing a diverse team under the command of “homogeneous leadership” may yield internal violence.
It remains unclear if this is specifically why the ruling includes an exemption for military academies. If the argument does, however, hold true, it is also unclear why the necessity for diversity within military leadership does not then extend to civilian institutions, given that a substantial share of officers also hail from non-military higher education institutions.
4. Will this mean the end of legacy admissions?
Data show that legacy preference — the practice of advantaging the children or direct relatives of alumni — favors white, and typically wealthy, applicants. Schools sometimes justify such policies by arguing that they encourage alumni donations. But the tide may be turning.
Less than a month after the ruling, Wesleyan University — a top-ranked private liberal arts college based in Connecticut — announced that it will no longer use legacy preference, as did the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. Harvard is now facing a civil complaint alleging that its use of legacy preference violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by disproportionately favoring white students.
During the October hearings related to the Harvard and UNC lawsuits, some of the justices questioned whether the universities’ use of affirmative action complied with the legal strict scrutiny standard. The standard dictates that any sort of explicit racial consideration can only stand if all other possible ways of achieving racial diversity have been exhausted. In concurring opinions, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh ’87 noted that affirmative action was unconstitutional, in part, because legacy preference is antithetical to elevating racial diversity. This line of thinking is what led legal scholars such as Richard Sander, as reported by the Harvard Crimson before the decision, to argue that had Harvard done away with its legacy preference model, the university could have won its affirmative action battle.
With all this in mind, is it possible that legacy admissions at Yale and nationwide could be coming to an end?
5. Will this mean the end of standardized test requirements?
Another avenue universities may pursue to increase racial diversity is abolishing standardized testing requirements and instead switching permanently to a test-optional — perhaps even a test-blind — admissions model.
Over the course of the pandemic, Yale became one of many schools across the country that made submitting standardized test scores optional. Yale’s undergraduate admissions office previously told the News that going test-optional is at least partially responsible for the consequent increase in the shares of international applicants and of domestic applicants from racially underrepresented backgrounds.
In March, the admissions office extended its test-optional policy for one additional year, marking its fourth cycle without requiring test scores. The University had previously told the News it would announce a long-term policy by the winter of 2023 but then pushed the announcement back until the end of the coming semester. While administrators have not specified a relationship between this one-year delay and the affirmative action decision, the relationship between test-optional admissions and racial diversity within the applicant pool makes a link between the delayed decision and the ruling seem likely.
6. How far will the ruling’s effects permeate?
In an opinion column for the New York Times, sociologists Richard Arum and Mitchell Stevens make the case that because most higher education institutions are not selective, and most college-going students do not attend selective schools, the repeal of race-conscious admissions affects very few people materially.
They specify that just 6 percent of all college students attend a school with an acceptance rate of 25 percent or less — the vast majority of college-going students attend institutions with acceptance rates upwards of 70 percent.
The ruling does still, as Arum and Stevens also agree, majorly impact admissions to selective schools. It could also impact how students of color approach the application process and navigate life post-matriculation, should they receive and choose to accept an offer of admission. And research shows that universities such as those in the Ivy League offer great potential for socioeconomic mobility.
While our coverage at the News over the year to come will certainly grapple with affirmative action and admissions questions, such as the ones outlined here, it is worth remembering that the context of college admissions within selective institutions is not reflective of college admissions nationwide. In their column, Arum and Stevens caution against tunnel vision limited to Ivy-and-peer admissions and instead encourage directing attention to the other tiers of American postsecondary education as well.