SCOTUS affirmative action ruling: Why experts, activists say it's a step backward

The 6-3 decision found that race-based admissions practices violate the 14th Amendment.

Demonstrators in front of the Supreme Court hold signs reading: We won’t go back.
Demonstrators gather in support of affirmative action at the Supreme Court on Oct. 31, 2022. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters) (REUTERS)
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The Supreme Court on Thursday overturned decades of legal precedent that allowed colleges and universities to consider race during the admissions process.

The 6-3 decision in Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina and 6-2 decision in Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College found that race-based admissions practices violate the 14th Amendment. The outcome has sparked nationwide concerns around racial equity and diversity in higher education.

In a release issued after the decision, Students for Fair Admissions denounced race-conscious admissions as a “colorblind legal covenant.” But Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the court’s only Black female justice, described the decision as “colorblindness for all” in her dissent. (Brown, a Harvard alum, recused herself from the Harvard case.)

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson listens in the audience as President Biden gives the State of the Union address.
Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson at the State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 7. (Jacquelyn Martin/Pool/AFP via Getty Images) (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Civil rights leaders and advocates say this decision is a step backward for minorities, and that colleges and universities must ensure diversity more now than ever before.

“Today has proven what we already knew — we are dealing with a rogue ‘Supreme’ Court that has bowed a knee to an extremist minority. Now, it’s up to every institution in this country, from colleges to corporations, to embrace diversity, no matter what,” Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, said in a tweet.

During his remarks about the decision Thursday at the White House, President Biden said, “This is not a normal court” when asked if it had gone rogue.

At least eight states have bans on using race in the college admissions process. “California and Michigan are the most restrictive and oldest,” Marie Bigham, founder and executive director of ACCEPT, a nonprofit that focuses on removing racialized barriers in higher education, told Yahoo News. A recent poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that over 60% of Americans are in favor of affirmative action in college admissions and don’t support banning the practice.

Liliana Garces, professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Texas at Austin, says the decision will cause a ripple effect. “It’s a potential outcome that will have repercussions not just within institutions of higher education, but across all these other sectors of society,” she told Yahoo News ahead of the ruling.

Garces and other experts in education and employment policy spoke to Yahoo News ahead of and after the Supreme Court decision. (Some responses have been lightly edited for length or clarity.)

A demonstrator in support of affirmative action holds up a sign reading: The root of bias in admissions is white supremacy, not affirmative action.
Advocates for affirmative action at the Supreme Court. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters) (REUTERS)

What is affirmative action?

“What race-conscious admissions does [is take] into account all of the factors that add to a person’s life story, including their racialized experiences. If the court goes ballistic and says they’re going to end all opportunities to utilize race-aware, race-conscious admissions like this, it changes dramatically what could happen in that path to college,” Bigham said ahead of the decision.

“It’s an approach to admissions that takes a holistic perspective and understanding of students who are applying — they look at all their backgrounds and experiences, including how race or ethnicity may have shaped their educational trajectory or other life experiences. So it’s really a very commonsensical approach to admissions that both public and private institutions across the country employ,” Garces said.

A protester outside the Supreme Court holds a sign reading: Support SFFA, fair admissions for all.
A person protests against affirmative action outside the Supreme Court on Thursday. (Jose Luis Magana/AP) (AP)

How will the college admissions process be impacted?

“My biggest fears are that it will be such an overreach that colleges not only wouldn’t be able to ask applicants questions regarding their racialized identity, but that students and counselors and others speaking on their behalf wouldn’t be allowed to even disclose or discuss that,” Bigham said.

“If colleges can’t consider race, are there so many parts of a person’s story that tip their hand to their racial identity? And will all of that information then be stripped out of a student’s story or out of their application? Will only factors, activities, addresses, all of that, that are completely without a racial identity? Will that be the only information that’s allowed in this process? If so, to me, that is the worst-case scenario, because then that truly denies people like me their story, their identity, their opportunity to speak on their behalf,” she said.

“Beginning today, America’s colleges and universities have a legal and moral obligation to strictly abide by the Supreme Court’s opinion,” Edward Blum, founder and president of the Students for Fair Admissions conservative advocacy group, said in a statement Thursday. “These obligations compel the removal of all racial and ethnic classification boxes from undergraduate and postgraduate application forms.”

A Harvard student at a rally holds up a sign reading: Diversity is a necessity.
Ishika Vyas, a student at Harvard University, chants at a rally in support of affirmative action outside the Supreme Court on Oct. 31, 2022. (The Washington Post via Getty Images) (The Washington Post via Getty Im)

Is the future of minorities at risk?

“We know from the evidence in states where state ballot initiatives have passed that end up banning affirmative action policies for public institutions in employment and in education. We know that those policies end up causing significant declines in the representation of students of color, across all those educational sectors, sectors that are really important for providing those pathways for the training of our future lawyers and doctors, scientists,” Garces said.

“This has long-run implications for the employment outcomes of young Black and Hispanic workers; on average, Black and Hispanic applicants to the University of California earned about 5% lower wages throughout their 20s and 30s after that state’s affirmative action ban was implemented in 1998. Selective universities aren’t the only way to labor market success, though; I find that the overall number of high-earning young Black and Hispanic workers in California fell by about 3 percent in the years after the ban,” Zach Bleemer, assistant professor of economics at the Yale School of Management, told Yahoo News.

A young adult design professional sitting at a desk frowns as she brainstorms project ideas.
A young adult design professional brainstorms project ideas. (Getty Images) (Getty Images)

How will schools respond?

“There are [over 200,000] four-year colleges in this country. Many of them are open-enrollment, anyone can sign up to go; a handful of them are hyper-, hyper-, hyper-selective, [and] how they slice that pie is incredibly difficult. So we’re already in a place where that pathway is different across the board, by state, by size, by so many different things,” Bigham said.

“The impacts of this decision will be very different at different colleges. It will likely be most impactful at the selective public universities where affirmative action is currently implemented — places like UNC, UVA, Georgia Tech, SUNY Binghamton, etc. — and at highly selective private universities,” Bleemer said. “Most university students in the U.S. attend generally nonselective institutions, and those schools are unlikely to be directly impacted by the policy, though some of their Black and Hispanic enrollments might rise [among students no longer about to get into more selective schools].”

People rally in support of affirmative action in college admissions. One person holds up a sign in English and Chinese characters reading: Solidarity and Diversity.
People rally in support of affirmative action in college admissions as arguments start on the cases at the Supreme Court on Oct. 31, 2022. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images) (The Washington Post via Getty Im)

What’s next?

“Looking ahead to the upcoming admissions cycle, SFFA and its counsel have been closely monitoring potential changes in admissions procedures. ... We remain vigilant and intend to initiate litigation should universities defiantly flout this clear ruling and the dictates of Title VI and the Equal Protection Clause,” Blum said in his statement.

“These cases are really going to challenge institutions of higher education to make sure that they address whatever the consequences of the ruling are, in ways that really don’t undermine their educational mission. And I hope that institutions can rise to that challenge,” Garces said.