The Supreme Court affirmative action decision left a head-scratching exemption for military academies. Here’s why it matters

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At the bottom of page 22 of the Supreme Court’s lengthy opinion barring the use of race in college admissions, is a curious three-sentence footnote.

The footnote carves out an exception to the landmark ruling: While nearly all colleges and universities must stop all practices of affirmative action in admissions, the nation’s military academies can continue because of “potentially distinct interests,” the majority opinion states. 

The military academies — federally subsidized institutions of higher education designed to train future generations of military leaders — didn’t ask for a special exception. Indeed, as the Supreme Court was hearing arguments in Students for Fair Admissions v. the University of North Carolina and Students for Fair Admissions v. President & Fellows of Harvard College, the Department of Defense submitted a friend-of-the-court brief outlining why the use of affirmative action at the academies and civilian colleges alike helps contribute to diverse military leadership, and why that matters. 

Each year, about 3,500 students graduate from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland; the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York; the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado; the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York; and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut. When they graduate, they’re commissioned as officers into the military. 

But service academy graduates make up fewer than 20 percent of all military officers, according to 2019 data from the Department of Defense. The majority of commissioned officers earned the required bachelor’s degrees at civilian universities, and either participated in a Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program in college or pursued a military career through a short-term officer training program after graduating. 

Most commissioned officers earned their required bachelor’s degrees at civilian universities; service academy graduates make up fewer than 20 percent of all military officers

The racial demographics of officers who came from a service academy largely mirrored those of all active officers in the 2019 data — about 79 percent were white, 6 percent were Black and 5 percent were Asian; among all active officers, 76 percent were white, 8 percent Black and 5 percent Asian. Separate from race, about 7 percent of officers from service academies were Hispanic, compared to 8 percent of all officers. (The data omits the Coast Guard’s demographics because it is housed in the Department of Homeland Security.)

But the officer demographics didn’t come close to mirroring the racial makeup of the enlisted corps —  about 32 percent of the enlisted corps are racial minorities compared to 24 percent of the officer corps

In the brief submitted to the Supreme Court, military leaders wrote that cutting off race-conscious admissions would limit the already small pool of officer candidates, and “it also would reduce the number of qualified officers of all races who will be exposed to the benefits of a diverse educational experience.”

In the military, you can’t get to the top without starting at the bottom, said Lawrence M. Hanser, senior behavioral scientist at the Rand Corporation, a nonpartisan think tank, who has studied the military for more than 30 years. 

“The person who’s going to head the Army in 20 years is already in the army,” Hanser said. 

“So if you want representation at the senior ranks, you’ve got to bring them in at the bottom in order for that to happen.”

Ignoring race on college applications makes it difficult to ensure that those ranks will be sufficiently racially diverse, he said, because a person’s race often affects a person’s family resources, the quality of their K-12 education, and other factors that can make them a more or less desirable candidate. In order to have a fair race-blind college admissions system, he said, we would need to live in a world where everyone has the same access to resources, opportunity and quality education from the start of their life. But we don’t. 

“By this decision, basically what’s happened is, they’ve undermined paths to leadership opportunities for people of color,” Hanser said. “It cripples our entire society, because so many of the paths to leadership run through colleges and universities — leadership in society writ large.”

Natasha Warikoo, a sociologist at Tufts University and who has written several books about race in college admissions, said that even though a relatively small number of people are affected by the ruling against affirmative action policies, the changes will now be happening at places that often set up students for powerful positions after graduation. 

“It is a policy that facilitates the diversification of leadership, not just in the military, so it’s important even if it doesn’t affect that many individuals,” Warikoo said. 

“If you want representation at the senior ranks, you’ve got to bring them in at the bottom in order for that to happen.” 

Lawrence M. Hanser, senior behavioral scientist, Rand Corporation, who has studied the military for more than 30 years

Many proponents of affirmative action worry this exception might be sending the wrong message about where Black and Latino students belong.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote, “The Court has come to rest on the bottom-line conclusion that racial diversity in higher education is only worth potentially preserving insofar as it might be needed to prepare Black Americans and other underrepresented minorities for success in the bunker, not the boardroom.”

The arguments military leaders made for diversity are compelling beyond the military, too, said 

Anurima Bhargava, who led federal civil rights enforcement in schools and higher education institutions at the Department of Justice during the Obama administration. It’s important in every part of American life to have spaces to come together with people from other races and backgrounds, she said, especially considering how divided the country feels.

“To suggest that somehow or another that’s more important to the military or somehow different 

and needs to be separated out, in my mind, there isn’t some particular justification for that,” said Bhargava, who now leads now leads the equity-focused consulting firm Anthem of Us.

Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said that historically, it makes sense that exceptions have been made for the military because, “fifty years ago, being a soldier was dramatically different than any other occupation you could think of.” 

That, Saenz said, was the logic behind rules that prevented women soldiers from fighting in combat, and other differing standards in the military. 

He understands why Jackson used the example she did, he said, but modern warfare doesn’t include a lot of soldiers in bunkers. And as wars become more technology-driven, jobs inside the military are becoming less different than those outside the military. “I think the theory behind exceptionalism and the tolerance of it go away, or at least are reduced substantially,” he said, making the Supreme Court’s exception even more puzzling.

This story about military academy admissions 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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