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Affirmative Action, Race-Conscious College Admissions to be Challenged this Fall 

Photo Courtesy: Chris Yates.

The Supreme Court will decide whether affirmative action in college admissions is constitutional in an upcoming court case against Harvard and the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, threatening campus diversity, equity, inclusion initiatives, and minority recruitment programs.

In early 2021, Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), a nonprofit organization that aims to ‘eliminate race and ethnicity from college admissions’, filed an appeal for a lawsuit against Harvard College and the University of North Carolina in an effort to expel the recognition of race in the college admission process, claiming it violates the Equal Protection Clause. 

With the argument now facing the Supreme Court, the legal precedent of Grutter v. Bollinger– which ruled that the use of race in the admissions process is constitutional and does not violate the Equal Protection Clause– is in danger of being overruled. 

Additionally, significant repercussions are at stake if the Supreme Court decides to rule in favor of the SFFA. University programs for recruiting minority students, such as Harvard’s Undergraduate Minority Recruitment Program might be ruled unconstitutional, and further divide the opportunities for minority students to be noticed and enrolled by higher education institutions. In the administration offices, training for admissions officers for the consideration of race in applications will be ruled unconstitutional and proactive efforts for inclusion and diversity on campuses will be lost.

The SFFA first filed a lawsuit against Harvard in late 2014, arguing that one applicant was denied admission to Harvard solely based on racial admissions preferences and racial classifications on college applications which worked against Asian-American applicants and favored white Harvard applicants instead. The U.S. Court of Appeals rejected the claim and ruled that “Harvard’s race-conscious admissions program does not violate Title VI [discrimination based on race]’. However, SFFA appealed to the Supreme Court which granted certiorari for the court case in January of 2022, although the exact date of oral argument has not been disclosed to the public. 

The SFFA also filed a lawsuit against the University of North Carolina in 2014, claiming a student with great academic standing was denied enrollment because they were not a minority student. The organization claims that enrollment opportunities based on academics and extracurriculars fall short of the consideration of the race of an applicant, then filed a lawsuit claiming the alleged issue.

Camila Moreno-Lizarazo, a senior journalism student at the University of North Carolina expresses her concern against the efforts of the SFFA.

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“I’m very against it. I’m a first-generation Latina immigrant so the odds have been stacked against me since I was born. When you look at the statistics of how much Latin women make compared to a white man’s dollar and how many Latina women graduate college, it’s incredibly difficult for us,” Moreno-Lizarazo said.

Harvard and the University of North Carolina both defended their admissions process arguing that the inclusion of race is crucial to the admission process. The institutions’ reasoning for the use of race in admissions is to acquire the ‘educational benefits’ that diversity brings to a college campus. As well as an effort to enroll students that will make an inclusive and representative student body. They argued further to use admissions procedures that consider the applicant’s academics, talents, and extracurriculars to make a wholesome final decision, not solely relying on race in admissions.  

Moreno-Lizarazo further explained how diversity in her predominantly white university stemmed from inclusion programs within admissions. She comments, “I surround myself around people of my ‘tribe’ and those people will be honest with me and say they are here because of the same diversity and inclusion scholarship that I did.”

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor announced in the opinion of the Rehnquist Court of the landmark Grutter v. Bollinger case, that the “use of race in admissions is narrowly tailored to further a compelling state interest in assembling a diverse student body.” 

Even with the legal precedent of the Supreme Court, the Bollinger case was won with a 5-4 liberal majority. Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard and University of North Carolina will be argued in the coming months with the current 6-3 conservative majority on the court. It raises questions about the Supreme Court’s final ruling on this affirmative action case.

“What we know is that at elite colleges and universities in this country, Black Americans make up only 5% of students enrolled with affirmative action. So, it’s kind of hard to prove that large numbers of white Americans are being discriminated against when Black and Latino students are still underrepresented in four-year institutions”, commented civil rights investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones on Democracy Now!

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Although the percentage of African American freshman students enrolled in prestigious colleges rose to 9% in the coming years, according to the research journal Black Undergraduate Students at Select Ivy League Institutions, there is still a vast gap between minority students and their white counterparts for equal representation.

“I believe all university admissions processes should take into account all aspects of diversity. This country has a long-standing history of fitting the mold of a straight white man. We must accept and encourage those who do not fit in that mold,” Evan Quaintance, an honors political science student at Howard University said.

Campus diversity could have major shifts in the coming years if the court agrees with the SFFA and universities’ diverse and inclusive admissions process could be dead. 

Copy edited by Nhandi Long-Shipman

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