College, race and the U.S. Supreme Court

Decision may prohibit the use of affirmative action in admissions


Graphic by Claire Satkiewicz

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on the use of affirmative action could change the college admissions process with a decision scheduled to be announced in late spring.  

Affirmative action is the use of policies and procedures allowing colleges to factor in race and ethnicity when considering the admission of a student.

“The primary goal of affirmative action is to level the playing field,” said Marilynn Schuyler, a lawyer representing the American Association for Access, Equity and Diversity. “That’s always the goal … and one of the ways academic institutions [are] able to do that is to consider race as one of a number of factors to try to achieve diversity in the programs that benefit the students … it’s really a benefit to everybody on the campus for the programs to be diverse, and it provides for equitable outcomes as well.”

There are two affirmative action cases currently being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court: Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. University of North Carolina, et al., and Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College. The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments for both cases on Oct. 31. 

Students for Fair Admissions, also known as SFFA, is arguing to eliminate the consideration of race in college admissions, while both universities are arguing to continue using affirmative action in their admissions processes, Schuyler said.

“In Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, they are deciding whether the U.S. Supreme Court should overrule Grutter v. Bollinger and hold that institutions of higher education cannot use race as a factor in admissions,” Schuyler said. 

In Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether affirmative action and the policy of race-conscious admissions violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina, et al., the court is considering whether the university’s use of affirmative action in admissions violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“The equal protection clause is designed to protect people who have suffered discrimination [and] who are subject to that … it’s basically to right the wrongs of the past and to make sure that it doesn’t happen again,” said Schuyler.“Affirmative action in no way harms those people, and to the extent that there is an impact on other groups, it’s so insignificant compared to the benefit.”

If the court finds that the use of affirmative action in college admissions is unconstitutional, it will impact students applying to college after the cases are decided, Schuyler said.  

After denying a request for a phone interview, Edward Blum, founder and president of SFFA, said in an email, “SFFA believes that a student’s race should not be used to help or harm them gain admission to any college or university.”

Blum declined to comment further or respond to follow-up questions regarding SFFA’s involvement in the two cases.

Admissions officers from Harvard University and the University of North Carolina did not respond to requests for interviews. 

Yale University sophomore Tony Ruan and other students protested for the continued use of affirmative action in college admissions on Oct. 31 outside the U.S. Supreme Court building.

“I think affirmative action provides some more context … my Asian ethnicity has played a large role in my identity,” said Ruan. “So to be considered as an Asian American in the admissions process is something I really support.”

Ruan found it important to have Asian Americans at the protest to challenge the notion that all Asian Americans are against affirmative action, he said. 

“I hope that [affirmative action policies] will continue to be precedent, or maintained in a bulk of the precedent that was made a couple of decades before,” said Ruan. “We don’t see this as a permanent solution.”