Editor’s note: This story is developing and will be updated.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday ruled against race-based admissions practices at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, shattering decades of legal precedent and upending the recruitment and enrollment landscape for years to come.
In a 6-3 opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the high court held that eliminating “racial discrimination means eliminating all of it” — that admissions processes at Harvard and UNC infringed on the 14th Amendment’s guarantee to equal protection under the law.
However, Roberts wrote that “nothing prohibits universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected the applicant’s life, so long as that discussion is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability that the particular applicant can contribute to the university.”
Students for Fair Admissions, or SFFA, had sued Harvard and the UNC-Chapel Hill over the institutions’ race-conscious admissions policies.
The legal group argued UNC-Chapel Hill favored Black and Hispanic applicants, violating the 14th Amendment. Separately, the group alleged that Harvard discriminated against Asian American applicants in violation of federal law.
Thursday’s Supreme Court decision will only affect a small segment of colleges, as most institutions accept a majority of applications. However, higher ed leaders have expressed concerns about the message it sends to historically marginalized students.
Conservatives on the high court signaled their skepticism of race-conscious policies during oral arguments in October, questioning when they could wind down. The justices repeatedly referenced a majority opinion in a landmark 2003 admissions case, Grutter v. Bollinger, in which the Supreme Court preserved race-conscious practices at the University of Michigan.
In that opinion, former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor had predicted race-conscious policies would be unnecessary in 25 years. However, many scholars consider this an overly optimistic take on race in the country and have said it was not a hard deadline.
The Supreme Court last ruled on race-conscious policies in 2016.
SFFA also brought that lawsuit, which was on behalf of Abigail Fisher, a White student who said the University of Texas at Austin had denied her admission because of her race. The justices narrowly upheld the university’s race-conscious admissions program in that case, Fisher v. University of Texas.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion in that case, backed previous rulings saying race-conscious admissions programs could be constitutional if they were narrowly tailored to account for the educational benefits of diversity. The decision shocked college access advocates at the time, given that Kennedy had dissented in the 2003 ruling in Grutter.
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