As Supreme Court considers case to ban affirmative action in college admissions, CHS students could face significant changes in application process, acceptance rates

February 5, 2023

Legal experts predict that race-conscious college admissions will meet an untimely fate after hearing recent oral arguments in the Supreme Court (SCOTUS). Its conservative majority will make a ruling this summer that could end a decades-long precedent of affirmative action policies, which are designed to eliminate unlawful discrimination of college applicants, as well as to remedy the historical discrimination that still affects students of color. 

This February marks two years since opponents of affirmative action asked SCOTUS to use its case against Harvard University to overrule the aforementioned precedent first endorsed by the high court in 1978 and affirmed in 2003. Challengers say this 2003 ruling in a University of Michigan case, Grutter v. Bollinger, should be struck down.

According to government teacher Michael O’Toole, affirmative action is a beneficial social program with roots in the civil rights movement. However, he added that the policy is toothless, with schools in violation of affirmative action facing virtually no repercussions aside from negative publicity. 

“(Affirmative action) is an attempt to correct the horrific past that we have yet to deal with. It is an attempt to take into consideration people’s minority status,” he said.

On Oct. 31, 2022, the justices agreed to hear Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, meaning freshmen, sophomores and juniors at this school can expect to see a result that could affect their admissions chances. So far, lower U.S. courts have sided with Harvard.

According to Brandon Anderson, co-president of the Young Democrats Club and senior, affirmative action is still needed because racism is still a salient problem in America.

He said, “I know to some people it seems like racism is over, but the lasting impact of racist policies are still affecting us today. So, you’re taking these groups that have been historically discriminated against and giving them a better chance at access.”

A Controversial Cultural Issue

Opponents of affirmative action claim race should not be a factor in college admissions, positing it is actually discriminatory toward Asian American and white students. According to research from Princeton University, students who identify as Asian must score 450 points higher than a Black student on the SAT to have the same chance of admission at private colleges, an effect magnified at top tier schools like those in the Ivy League. 

Senior Inia Narayanan said during her college admissions process, statistics like this one have led her to question whether affirmative action is truly equitable to Asian American students like herself. 

She said, “I have mixed opinions and perspectives on (affirmative action), because although I do believe that it is justified, there are certain ethnic groups such as Asians who still have been persecuted in the past but are hurt by it. I’m not sure if that should be valid.”

Narayanan is not alone. According to a 2022 study conducted by the Pew Research Center, the American public seems inclined to believe colleges should prioritize numerical benchmarks over intangible qualities like work ethic or leadership ability. Ninety-three percent of Americans said grades should be at least a minor factor in college admissions, followed closely by standardized test scores. Only 26% thought race should be a factor, and consideration of gender, also covered in affirmative action, garnered the least support by far. 

However, Anderson said the evidence commonly used to criticize affirmative action is taken out of context. 

“People point to things like test scores or GPA, but they don’t factor into account that at a lot of predominantly Black schools you don’t have the same level of education that you’re getting at Carmel. You don’t have as many AP courses, so you literally are unable to get your GPA as high. When you consider those things, I think that looking strictly at numbers isn’t the best thing to do…,” he said. “If you’re not taking into account the socioeconomic factors that are also tied to race, you’re not painting a complete picture. And I think that in a way, you’re furthering discrimination.”

O’Toole said he agreed with Anderson, adding that more studies are needed. He said the main concept affirmative action is meant to furtherdiversityis widely supported by the public. 

“It’s kind of like welfare. A lot of Americans hear that word and they know they can be pushed away, when overwhelmingly, just like affirmative action, when you break down the tenets of it, most people are in favor of the individual portions of it,” he said. “But when they hear affirmative action, they’re like, ‘Boo, boo, that’s no good. That’s racist against whites.’ A lot more research needs to be done. That statement should not be uttered.”

In the upcoming case, Edward Blum, legal strategist and creator of the plaintiff Students for Fair Admissions, claims Harvard’s affirmative action policies discriminate against Asian American applicants in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

Anderson said, “To me, that’s kind of a strange argument when you’re looking at the demographics of Harvard.”

Indeed, according to data calculated from the Harvard Common Data Set 2021-2022, 9.3% of undergraduates were “Black or African American, non-Hispanic” and 21.7% of undergraduates were “Asian, non-Hispanic” (please note international students were listed as “nonresident aliens” and were not counted). The U.S. Census Bureau states that as of July 2021, 13.6% of Americans were “Black or African American alone” and 6.1% were “Asian alone.”

However, Narayanan said diversity initiatives, as colleges currently implement them, should not be top priority. She mentioned a recent phenomenon of jokes among students of color regarding colleges actively seeking them out on campus to take photos for pamphlets and promotional materials, which give the school the appearance of diversity.

She said, “I feel like the intentions of (diversity goals) are really important. And I think for colleges and their use of diversity, it has been kind of ill-intended, as something they just want to be there. It’s for that good face. I feel like diversity shouldn’t be a first priority just because of the intentions behind it.”

America Without Affirmative Action

California can serve as a case study for the banning of affirmative action. Proposition 209, a ballot initiative which banned racial preferences in admissions to the state’s elite public universities, was passed by a 55% vote in 1996. The New York Times found the number of Black and Hispanic students admitted to the University of California system decreased, while it also reduced their chances of finishing college, attending graduate school and earning a high salary. Proposition 16, which would have repealed the Californian ban on race- and gender-based affirmative action, was defeated in 2020 by a 57% vote. 

In the same vein, O’Toole said a ban on the, in his own words, “grossly misunderstood program,” would decrease the numbers of certain demographics on campuses.

“Affirmative action says you should give deference to the minority candidate. It doesn’t say you have to,” O’Toole said. “So, if there isn’t even that consideration anymore, and our society already has disproportionate numbers, numbers that don’t reflect society accurately, it could continue that trend and we could potentially see minority students being denied, or being accepted into college at a lower rate, than currently.” 

Anderson agreed, and said because affirmative action technically only encourages acceptance of minority students, it is not restrictive. He added that a popular suggested alternative to these policies, “race-blind” admissions, seem impossible given the emphasis college applications place on identity.

“It’s not a quota anymore. It’s not a numerical value where a school says we want X amount of Black people so they’ll take X amount of Black applicants…,” he said. “Now, they’re allowing race to be considered as a factor in admissions. You can say, ‘we don’t want race to be considered as a factor,’ but then if a college says they want personal experiences from you, I don’t see a way to separate a lot of my personal experiences from being Black.”

Despite this, nine states have successfully banned affirmative action, with others reversing (Texas in 2003) or failing to pass (Colorado in 2008) the measures. For the states that have, the results were both immediate and long lasting. 

Narayanan said although representation of Black and Hispanic students might decrease, colleges should still not consider race so heavily. However, she also said no matter an applicant’s race, a ban on affirmative action would have far-reaching effects, especially for students from less well-financed families.

“I think some colleges and their ethnic makeup would definitely not be as diverse, but at the same time, I feel it would be better than to regulate applications off of race,” she said. “If affirmative action was terminated, then there’s a possibility that applications would be a lot more anonymous and they wouldn’t really go into depth with your background. That also goes for some scholarship abilities and financial aid as well, in terms of stating your background for the (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).”

The Case for Change

These perspectives certainly have significance to the upcoming case, with the decision(s) tentatively predicted to be made in June. The justices nominated by former president Donald Trump, including Amy Coney Barrett in 2020, Brett Kavanaugh in 2018 and Neil Gorsuch in 2017, have historically voted conservatively on cases like this one. Depending on the ruling, O’Toole, Narayanan and Anderson all said CHS students’ application process, or at least chances of admission, could be affected.

According to O’Toole, while he is only speculating, it is extremely likely the SCOTUS will lean right on such a contentious cultural issue, despite the fact it has upheld race-conscious admissions programs twice in the last 19 years. 

“Given the makeup of the court and the way they have ruled so far, and many of the justices, you can look at past papers they’ve written or their rulings, I’m not sure that affirmative action as we know it will be around. I don’t know if they’ll completely eradicate it, but I can definitely see that as a possibility,” he said. 

Anderson said the Supreme Court, and the general public, are focusing on the wrong issue. 

“It doesn’t make sense for a lot of the anger and vitriol surrounding college admissions to be targeted at Black and Brown people who are underrepresented at colleges when you have stuff like legacy and large donations from rich white families that allow (white applicants) to go to Harvard,” he said. “It’s frustrating to me that so often you have Black kids that worked really hard to get into these elite schools being seen as affirmative action applicants.”

However, Narayanan said she can’t see campus life changing very much, despite a hypothetical ban on affirmative action, because colleges and applicants alike will continue to see diversity as an attractive quality.

She said, “Because Harvard is just one school out of many, many schools in the United States, I’m not sure how much (campus life nationwide) would change and the extent of it. I feel like affirmative action will continue to be a thing for a while.”

Anderson agreed, and said while they have different ways of achieving it, most stakeholders have one goal in common: to give every student access to a quality education. 

“I think it’s all just really a Band Aid over the bigger issue of inequality in public education for the K-12 level,” he said. “If you really dislike affirmative action, you’d be in support of making sure that everyone’s public education is equally good.” 

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