The Supreme Court recently ruled on affirmative action in college admissions. Here’s a look at how affirmative action began, and what its removal may mean in the future.
The Supreme Court’s ruling
In June 2023, the Court ruled that two schools’ affirmative action programs (Harvard and the University of North Carolina) violate the Constitution’s equal protection clause, which bars racial discrimination by government entities. The Court ruled that college admissions programs now can only consider race “merely to allow an applicant to explain how their race influenced their character in a way that would have a concrete effect on the university.” A student must be treated on his or her experiences as an individual—not on the basis of race.
History of affirmative action
The idea of affirmative action began with a 1961 Executive Order that established the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. It required that federal contractors had to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants were hired without regard to race, religion, and national origin.” The goal of these policies was to fight discrimination by promoting equal opportunities for minorities and women.
This idea of “affirmative action” in college admissions began in the late 1960s/early 1970s. The goal was to include race as a way to address inequalities in student bodies that were primarily white. After several court challenges, it was seen as legal if admissions boards sought varied student bodies, including race.footnote 1 This action has been challenged in the courts a number of times, but it was upheld until now.footnote 2
Here are some FAQs about the Supreme Court’s recent ruling.
Q. Has affirmative action for admissions been in effect in all US schools?
No, there have been bans on affirmative action in Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Texas, and Washington.footnote 3
Q. What might happen next?
- The ruling has opened a renewed look at legacy admissions (especially in ivy league schools), which can give a preference to children/relatives of alumni or wealthy donors.
- There’s also a possibility that this ruling will have an impact on businesses that are focusing on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) with targeted talent prospecting and dedicated DEI departments.
- As a result of the ruling, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) may see an uptick in applications as Black students who are deciding on a college choose a school where they may feel more accepted. These were created as part of the Higher Education Act of 1965. They offer all students an opportunity for education, regardless of race.
In search of diverse student bodies
With the court’s new ruling, there are bound to be changes in college admissions policies. Legal experts and schools are grappling with the implications of the ruling, but it will be some time before all of the practical effects are clear.
Schools may have to pivot to find other ways to maintain an inclusive student body. “We know firsthand from our own data how a ban on affirmative action can really affect the diversity of especially your undergraduate populations,” said Santa J. Ono, the current president at the University of Michigan. Still, he said, the university has managed to find other methods to attract students from a variety of racial backgrounds. “It’s a lot of work. It takes a lot of resource and time, but with time it is possible.”footnote 4