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Diversity on college campuses (image credit: alexis-brown--Xv7k95vOFA-unsplash)

Race-based admissions

Any day now, the Supreme Court is expected to hand down a ruling on a pair of cases, which will determine if colleges can continue to consider race as a criterion in deciding who gets in and who does not.

Many experts believe that going by the conservative leanings of six of the nine justices, the court will likely rule against race-based admissions policies, dismantling a 45-year-old legal precedent.

One case contends that Harvard’s admissions process discriminates against Asian American applicants, by holding them to a higher standard. The companion case asserts that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill discriminates against both Asian American and white applicants.

Factors Influencing the college-admissions process

How have things been working so far? When college admissions committees review an application, they consider an applicant’s race as one of many factors—the others being their hometown, athletic skills, socioeconomic status, relationship to alumni, donors, or university employees—alongside their academic record.

Race is just one factor, although a vital one. If it’s outlawed by the court, though, the abolishment will have sweeping consequences, dramatically changing the composition—and complexion—of college campuses across the country. 

California bans race criteria

In 1978, in the landmark judgment, the University of California v. Bakke, the Supreme Court eliminated racial quotas—setting aside a number of seats for people from a particular race. But it did allow universities to consider race as a factor when choosing among qualified applicants.

Two decades later, in 1996, that changed. California became the first state to ban considering race in public education (as well as in employment and in contracting.) In all, nine states have since banned race-based admissions policies: Washington, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, Arizona, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Idaho.

Effect of a race ban

1998, the first year the ban’s effects were felt, saw the number of Black and Latino freshmen drop by nearly 50 percent, at U.C.L.A. and UC Berkeley.

That could soon start happening elsewhere as well. 

Speaking at a recent media event, hosted by E.M.S., Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), a non-profit that promotes the civil rights of Latinos, raised another troubling concern. Not only will the numbers of black and brown students plunge of their own accord, but in some instances, universities will actively attempt to lower their numbers, for fear that they will be in the eye of legal trouble. 

“Now, legal counsels are telling their (college) presidents that they need to show a palpable drop in the number of black and brown admissions,” he said. “So, as an immediate effect of the ruling, we can see direct discrimination against black and brown students.” That, in turn, will dent the reputations of the colleges engaging in such a move.

The upcoming ruling

Saenz went on to explain what the upcoming ruling is not about. One: It does not relate to hiring or contracting, but only college admissions. Two: Regardless of what the court decides, it will not be a mandate in favor of “race ignorance.” Three: It will not dictate the curriculum. For instance, it will not tell a college that it cannot teach ethnic studies.

Lisa Holder, President of the Equal Justice Society, a non-profit based in California, spoke about the setbacks that that state has suffered due to its own ban. “Our public universities became less diverse. Studies have shown that educational environments that are diverse are 35 percent more productive than the homogenous ones,” she said.

Diversity lifts engagement

Recounting her own observations as someone who has taught at the college level, she added that when her students were diverse—by race, gender, and sexual orientation—they showed up to class and were far more engaged. Their debates were much livelier and more interesting. A homogenous classroom, on the other hand, simply did not foster that level of intellectual energy.

California’s ban on race-based preferences in admissions has made its schools—pre-K to 12—the “most segregated in the nation,” she added. A ripple effect of that has been the wide gulf in the resources allocated to districts attended by black and brown kids and those that cater to predominantly white kids. “Per some studies, black and brown kids get $2,500 less annually than white kids.”

Not enough evidence of discrimination

These cases being weighed in by the Supreme Court have been brought by Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. (S.F.F.A.), a non-profit based in Virginia and helmed by Edward Blum, a conservative. S.F.F.A. claims that the admissions processes at the Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Bringing the essential Asian American angle to the conversation, John Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC), said that these cases had been brought by a “white man, purportedly representing the interests of Asian American students, for their own ill-gotten political gains.”

Further, he noted that the claims of the S.F.F.A. had been refuted by the lower courts. “Both the District Court and the Appellate Court went through extensive records. And the District Court, in a 130-page opinion as well as the Appellate Court, in a 104-page opinion, found that there was not enough evidence of discrimination against Asian American students.”

On the contrary, Asian American enrollment at Harvard has gone up steadily over time. In fact, at Harvard College, the undergraduate school of Harvard University, of the 1,984 admitted to the class of 2026, 27.9 percent are Asian American, 15.2 percent are African American and 12.6 percent are Latino.

Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash

Alakananda Mookerjee lives in Brooklyn, and is a Francophile.