By Jorge Vasquez Suarez
A pair of Supreme Court rulings expected later this year could change if and how universities consider race in admissions decisions.
In American colleges and universities, admission officers use a process known as holistic admissions. This process uses a wide range of academic and nonacademic factors like SAT and ACT test scores, GPA, extracurriculars, race, personal statement, income, interviews, talents, and character qualities to determine an applicant’s acceptance and achieve a diverse student body.
More than six out of ten Americans support outlawing race consideration in American college and university holistic admissions processes, according to a Washington Post poll. The recent Supreme Court cases, Students for Fair Admissions v. The University of North Carolina and Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, have engendered debate over this issue.
Last year, Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), a private nonprofit organization that believes that “racial classifications and preferences in college admissions are unfair” sued Harvard College for its supposed discrimination against Asian American applicants in favor of Caucasian applicants. The SFFA organization also sued the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) for supposedly violating the Fourteenth Amendment by using race as a factor in holistic college admissions. If the court decides to overturn years’ worth of past precedents that protect race-conscious measures, American colleges and universities will be forced to eliminate their race-conscious practices in their holistic admissions process.
On October 31, 2022, the Supreme Court appeared to hear two hours’ worth of oral arguments conducted by the attorneys representing the SFFA and UNC. Patrick Strawbridge, legal representative of the SFFA organization, argued that race should not be considered by nor disclosed to college and university admission officers because it does not offer any insight into who the student is: “The assumption that race necessarily informs something about anyone's qualifications is antithetical to this Court's precedents and to our Constitution.”
However, Ryan Park, legal representative of UNC, argued that through using race-conscious measures, UNC will reach a diverse community, hopefully then allowing UNC to transition from race-conscious practices to race-neutral measures that will lessen the use of race in college admissions.
Both arguments drew sharp criticisms from the court. Justice Sonia Sotomayor contended that race does offer information into an applicant’s background because it helps explain their upbringing: “Sometimes race does correlate to some experiences and not others,” she said. “If you're black, you're more likely to be in an under-resourced school. You're more likely to be viewed as less academic—as having less academic potential.”
Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson questioned whether race was being considered independently of other factors as a holistic process takes into consideration everything from test scores to extracurriculars. “But, as I read the record and understand their process, it's never standing alone, that it's in the context of all of the other factors,” she said.
For his part, Justice Clarence Thomas questioned Park’s emphasis on diversity, saying he had “no clue” what it means. “I'd also like you to give us a clear idea of exactly what the educational benefits of diversity at the University of North Carolina would be,” he added.
The court also heard arguments in Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College. Though it addressed issues similar to the University of North Carolina case, it was argued before a court that did not include Brown Jackson, who recused herself because of her affiliation with Harvard University.
Here, SFFA attorney Cameron Norris argued that Harvard’s admissions process ranks Asian American applicants as “less likable, confident, and kind. . . .” Norris advocated outlawing race-conscious admissions and moving to race-neutral measures. Since socioeconomic status is one such measure, he contended that if Harvard admitted more students from non-affluent backgrounds, it would see an increase in Hispanic and Asian students.
On the other hand, Seth Waxman, representing Harvard, argued that race-conscious measures are imperative to maintaining a diverse student body. He said that if the university moved to race-neutral measures, the representation of African-Americans in the Harvard student body would fall from 14 percent to 6 percent.
With the Supreme Court’s leaning-conservative justices — Samuel Alito, Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, John Roberts Jr., and Clarence Thomas — constituting the majority, many expect the court to overrule Grutter v. Bollinger, a 2003 court case that allows American colleges and universities to consider race in their holistic admissions process to diversify their student body. If the court were to overrule Grutter v. Bollinger, American colleges and universities would have to resort to other means to achieve a diverse student body, whether that be through geographical or socioeconomic means.
As the Supreme Court continues to contemplate the decisions of these two court cases, Americans will have to wait nervously until the decisions arrive in the summer of 2023.