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Supreme Court Strikes Down Affirmative Action at U.S. Colleges

Seal of the Supreme Court of the United States

On June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina in twin cases brought by Students for Fair Admissions, ruling that the decades-long policy of race-conscious admissions in American higher education was unconstitutional. Although expected by court-watchers and experts, this landmark decision has the potential to change college admissions dramatically.

As with all major historical moments, the impact of the decision will not be known for years. Some things about college admissions may change immediately; some may change gradually over time; and some may never change at all. But for now, here’s what we can say about this decision and what it means for the future of college admissions.

What Does the Fair Admissions Decision Say?

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts opined that in both cases, colleges had used race-conscious admissions policies not to promote diversity on campus, as precedent had deemed acceptable, but to discriminate against certain candidates on the basis of race, particularly Asian-American applicants, through racial stereotyping. Given this stance, a 6-3 majority of justices ruled that the use of race in college admissions violated previous laws pertaining to equality before the law, including the Fourteenth Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Dissenters on the court argued that, far from alleviating racial discrimination, eliminating colleges’ use of affirmative action in admissions will further entrench existing racial disparities in income, employment, and opportunity in the United States. Affirmative action policies at undergraduate institutions have strived to diversify not only college campuses, but also professional fields like law, medicine, business, and academia, by educating more marginalized students at top schools. Supporters argue that this decision will seriously hinder such efforts.

Experts agree that this ruling is almost certain to increase the number of white and Asian students at American universities and decrease the number of Black and Latino students. Exactly how much those ratios will shift will undoubtedly vary greatly by school, and by how effective colleges’ alternative approaches to ensuring diversity turn out to be.

With all that said, the Court’s decision has also left a significant loophole for colleges. In his decision, Roberts wrote that nothing in the opinion “should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life,” whether positive or negative. Rather, the decision mandates only that admissions officers evaluate applicants on their “individual experiences” and not on their race.

Broadly speaking, the decision is a broad defense of a “colorblind” Constitution and a victory for conservative activists, many of whom have worked toward this outcome for many years. Ultimately, the sweeping nature of the decision means that the full effects of this massive change to American law will take years to see.

What Does This Decision Mean for the Future of College Admissions?

The short answer: no one knows for sure. Over the past two decades, nine states have already outlawed affirmative action at their public universities, which caused a demographic shift away from Black and Latino students but did not drastically change the schools. Indeed, two of those institutions (the University of California system and the University of Michigan) have become increasingly competitive for all applicants over the past few years.

However, the application of this policy to all American institutions of higher education (with the notable exception of military academies, which received a special carve-out in the Court’s decision and may continue to use race as a factor in admissions) will undoubtedly shift the landscape. In particular, private schools, whose status has largely shielded them from past legal fights over affirmative action policies, will need to implement new rules and policies to comply with the Court’s decision while still meeting their institutional goals.

Fundamentally, colleges and universities still want to create a diverse campus experience and admit students from a range of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. Many colleges, already anticipating this decision, have been working all spring and summer to plan changes to their applications and outreach, which they will now implement. Exactly what form those plans take at any given institution will depend on its legal team’s close-reading of the new law of the land.

Certain changes have already been put into place. The Common Application, for instance, which asks about a student’s race among other factors in its profile, has made it possible for colleges to “hide” that information from the final application. (The Common App may keep the question for its own data-gathering purposes.) This change is designed to help protect the thousand-plus schools using the Common App from future litigation.

With that said, given the loophole allowing students to talk about how their race has affected their personal experience in their essays and application materials, we do expect that the vast majority of selective colleges will ask students a new or additional essay question about their identity and how it has shaped their individual experiences. Admissions officers will have to figure out as they go how best to use these expected new essays.

To be clear, colleges appreciate applicants who can write about having overcome adversity of any sort, who are connected with their culture and heritage, and who have clear passions and goals for themselves. Insofar as an applicant’s race factors into any of these core factors, colleges should still be able to acknowledge it, so long as they focus on the individual.

Should This Decision Change My Approach to the Upcoming Application Cycle?

Every student’s college admissions process is different, but if you’ve developed a strong application strategy and have a list of schools you feel good about, the Court’s decision is not a reason to upend your whole plan. The broader rules of college admissions are not likely to change right away. And, of course, we will need to wait and see exactly what new policies and initiatives colleges roll out in response.

In the meantime, though, there are a few things you can do now to prepare for some likely changes in a post-affirmative action college admissions landscape:

Prepare to write an essay about your identity. As mentioned above, one change that seems very likely is that colleges will add one or more new essays asking students to reflect on their identities, heritage, or the communities in which they grew up. These prompts have been common for years and do not apply only to racial minorities; however, given the Court’s permission of this approach to considering the effect of race on an individual applicant, we should expect to see more of them.

Stay in touch with the colleges on your list. Although the exact policies and plans that elite colleges will develop to sustain their diversity initiatives without affirmative action are not yet known—to us or even to colleges themselves!—that rollout will happen over the coming weeks and months. Thus, it’s crucial to sign up for emails from all the schools to which you plan to apply, so you can stay abreast of any program or opportunity that pertains to you. Given the timing of this decision, this rollout is likely to happen fast, so pay attention!

Ensure your application materials focus on your individual journey. The Court’s language around how an applicant’s race can and cannot be used to evaluate their application necessitate that students of all racial backgrounds critically consider how they plan to describe their individual journey in their application materials: their background, their education, their academic and extracurricular passions, and their goals. Having a strong individual story, supported by a full application of excellent materials, will be more important than ever.

The college admissions landscape is always changing, but the upcoming cycle may be the most dramatic and confusing of any in recent memory. If you want to discuss how these or any future changes to college admissions may affect your or your child’s college journey, we encourage you to schedule a free consultation with one of our expert counselors.

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