Supreme Court makes its historic ruling in affirmative action cases

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Ever since the Supreme Court announced last year that it would rule on two cases involving affirmative action in college admissions, the world of higher education has been anxiously awaiting a decision. Most experts predicted the court would eventually forbid the use of race as a factor in admissions decisions, and colleges and advocates have been scrambling to prepare for that new world.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court met those expectations, ruling that the consideration of race in college admissions is unconstitutional.

The court adjudicated two cases simultaneously, Students for Fair Admissions v. the University of North Carolina and Students for Fair Admissions v. President & Fellows of Harvard College – the first case involving a public university, the second a private one. Both cases considered only undergraduate admissions policies.

But there is a lot to understand that’s just beneath the headlines.

Black Americans have been falling even farther behind white Americans in holding college and university degrees, with recent trends suggesting this is only likely to get worse, regardless of the court’s decision. Taxpayer-funded flagship universities have been failing to enroll Black and Latino students in the same proportions as Black and Latino graduates from their states’ high schools. And one of the Asian American students who helped publicize the lawsuit that ended up before the high court now has some regrets.

These and other stories have been among The Hechinger Report’s coverage of this issue, coverage that gives important context to the historic ruling.

Our recent reporting included an exploration of the history of affirmative action in a 13-minute documentary film, released last fall. A column by our editor in chief, Liz Willen, introduced the film, which was produced by our partners WCNY and Retro Report, with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Hechinger’s higher education editor Jon Marcus reported and wrote a troubling story showing that the college degree gap between Black and white Americans is getting worse. Black student enrollment dropped by 22 percent between 2010 and 2020 and has dropped by another 7 percent in the years since, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics and the National Student Clearinghouse.

Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Jon that, “in a way, we’re almost in the worst of all possible worlds for civil rights, because people think a lot of problems have been solved.”

Our senior reporter Meredith Kolodner and data reporter Fazil Khan published an interactive story that shows how the flagship universities in each state fail to enroll proportionate numbers of Black and Latino students from their own states’ high schools. The graphics and maps make it clear how pervasive the disparities are and where they are most extreme.

For example, the University of California at Berkeley’s freshman class in 2021 was 20 percent Latino, in a state where 54 percent of high school graduates are Latino.  In Mississippi, 48 percent of high school graduates were Black in 2021, but only 8 percent of the next fall’s freshmen class at Ole Miss, the flagship, was Black.

My own reporting included a look at the experience of Michael Wang, who was once the “poster child” of the movement to ban affirmative action. After listening to him describe his current views on the subject, I pursued him for an interview, and learned that he has decidedly mixed feelings about the movement he gave momentum to.  

Affirmative action is supposed to help students from racial minority groups, but Wang believes it harms Asian Americans, who he said are held to unfair standards. He never wanted affirmative action to be done away with altogether, he said – just reformed.

The U.N.C. and Harvard cases are not the first challenges to the consideration of race in college admissions. Opponents to affirmative action started to challenge policies meant to add racial and gender diversity shortly after they began being implemented in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled that colleges could use race as a factor in admissions, but could not use racial quota systems. Since then, there have been several high-profile lawsuits that have modified the Supreme Court’s position on affirmative action in limited ways.

Proponents of affirmative action believe that these policies are essential to creating a racially just world and giving campuses a diverse mix of students from many backgrounds.  Race and ethnicity can have profound effects on housing location, school district, family earning potential and connections to power – factors that can hold students back from – or set them up for – college success.

Opponents of affirmative action believe that college applicants should be judged by their academic merits and other accomplishments alone. Some believe that giving students from underrepresented racial groups an edge in the admissions process disadvantages white students. Edward Blum, the founder of Students For Fair Admissions, has said that past discrimination cannot be remedied with new discrimination.

This story about the affirmative action case was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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