The Supreme Court’s conservative majority is setting itself up to overturn affirmative action in college admissions this year. Without it, racial diversity in higher education will be permanently damaged—unless Boston College and other top universities radically change their admissions selection criteria.
Growing up in a predominantly white community, I would often hear white parents express frustration and disappointment when an elite university rejected their child. Some of these parents attributed the rejection to affirmative action—assuming their child was a victim of a system that prioritizes diversity over merit. In their eyes, their child was the perfect applicant, but their spot was taken away by a minority student in the name of reparations. Heaven forbid the student of color has any merit.
This belief is often unfounded and perpetuates negative attitudes toward racial minorities in higher education. Still, it has aspects of truth within it.
According to Cornell Law School, “Affirmative action is defined as a set of procedures designed to; eliminate unlawful discrimination among applicants, remedy the results of such prior discrimination, and prevent such discrimination in the future.” Under affirmative action, the “prior discrimination” that white America imposed on people of color calls for equitable practices, so centuries of systemic racism are factored into the admissions process by providing some favorability to students of color over white students.
This will likely change very soon. The Supreme Court is set to make a decision on Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) v. Harvard and SFFA v. University of North Carolina later this year, potentially reversing 45 years of this established legal precedent and impeding the social progress that comes with diverse enrollment in elite colleges.
While racial identity is not the most significant factor in college admissions, affirmative action is necessary to ensure diverse classes are admitted every year to elite universities. These classes benefit from diversity—students who come from different backgrounds can learn from one another, and students who are uplifted due to affirmative action can dramatically improve their earnings after graduation. The question, at this point, is not whether or not affirmative action will be overruled—it is, to what extent is the court willing to remove race as a factor in college admissions?
The Supreme Court has two options, one more strict than the other:
- They can get rid of the racial “check box” on applications and only allow for the consideration of race and ethnic identities within essays and listed activities.
- They can rule to criminalize any consideration of race at all.
No matter what, higher education institutions everywhere will have to rethink much of their processes. To grow diversity after this drastic overturn, candidate attributes that correlate with certain racial identities must be given more weight. Colleges can target ZIP codes with low socio-economic status with the hopes of attracting more applicants of color. They might also monitor certain extracurricular activities that are common among students of color, like certain sports and dance groups, student governments, and racial or ethnic affinity clubs. Some universities may become entirely test-blind because standardized tests are greatly dependent on resources available to students. This will not be an easy makeover.
In a realistic scenario where the Supreme Court prohibits any use of race as a factor in college admissions—but competitive institutions continue to prioritize privileged groups, like legacy candidates and children of donors—achieving racial diversity would become very challenging. No matter how many remedial practices BC takes to maintain some diversity, the end of affirmative action means representation of underprivileged racial groups on campuses will decline, leading to less diversity overall.
The truth is, I do not know exactly what will happen when the court votes on this case. What I do know is the Supreme Court would not protect all people under the promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” by overturning this decision. In a sense, the Supreme Court is turning back to old American traditions—because the Founding Fathers excluded many peoples from this promise too. The opposites of those three ideals were inflicted upon people of color in this country for far too long, and so legislation like affirmative action should actively reconcile centuries of despotism.
This Supreme Court decision comes at a time when dozens of bills in 15 states are seeking to ban diversity, equity, and inclusion programs in public colleges. Private institutions like BC may have the room to continue fostering these inclusive spaces. But, when a new bill bans books with diverse characters, and the Supreme Court might rule that racial consideration for college admissions is unconstitutional, the peace of mind of these universities must take a hit. Any initiative aimed at promoting diversity, equity, or inclusion for underserved communities is at risk in this political climate.
The elimination of race-conscious policies at top universities like BC will ensure a decline in racial diversity on college campuses. If these schools do not implement fundamental changes to their admission process to include underrepresented groups, this diversity will decline even more.