Live Updates: Supreme Court strikes down affirmative action in college admissions
The Supreme Court ruled that race-conscious admissions processes are unconstitutional in a pair of cases involving Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Here's what we're following:
- Impact: This decision could have wide-reaching implications, including for course offerings and race-conscious programs in the workplace.
- Reaction: The ruling underscores an ideological divide in the country, with some calling this a step towards racial equality, and others saying it's at odds with reality.
- Legal reasoning: Today's decision hinged on a question about the Equal Protection Clause and overturns 40 years of legal precedent.
Follow more of NPR's coverage on the Supreme Court ruling
This is the final post in today's blog, with plenty more to dig into on this decision. Here's how:
- Read Nina Totenberg's breakdown of the ruling.
- Here's why the decision matters, written by NPR education reporter Elissa Nadworny.
- Listen to political analysis from the NPR Politics Podcast.
Stay tuned on air and online Friday for coverage of the final day of the Supreme Court term, when the justices will issue opinions on cases regarding LGBTQ rights and President Biden's student loan forgiveness program.
Today's cases represent two very different admissions environments
While similar, the cases ruled on today represent two very different admissions environments: UNC is a state school that highly favors in-state students (it's only allowed to admit 18% of first-year students from out of state) while Harvard is a highly selective private school that admits fewer than 5% of applicants (that's just under 2,000 students this fall).
In two amicus briefs filed ahead of the Harvard-UNC arguments at the Supreme Court, the University of Michigan and the University of California, Berkeley, both admitted that their efforts to meet their diversity goals — without using race — were falling short.
But not every school says it is struggling to achieve diversity without race-conscious admissions.
The attorney general of Oklahoma filed a brief on behalf of several states in support of Students for Fair Admissions, saying, "The University of Oklahoma, for example, remains just as diverse today (if not more so) than it was when Oklahoma banned affirmative action in 2012."
The university’s main campus in Norman currently has a U.S. undergraduate student population that is about 60% white and 5% Black.
Former President Obama highlights other efforts to diversify schools
Former President Barack Obama said in a statement that while affirmative action wasn't perfect, it allowed generations of students "like Michelle and me to prove we belonged."
"Now it’s up to all of us to give young people the opportunities they deserve — and help students everywhere benefit from new perspectives," he added.
For those looking to take action, Obama pointed to several organizations already doing this kind of work:
There are other ways to diversify student bodies, but those ways aren't as effective
Using race in admissions isn't the only way states and colleges have tried to diversify their incoming classes.
After California banned race-conscious admissions in 1996, the proportions of Black and Latino students at UCLA, one of the most elite school’s in the state’s system, fell drastically. By 2006, a decade later, only 96 Black students enrolled in a freshman class of nearly 5,000. They became known as the "Infamous 96."
Other ideas include admitting a percentage of the state's high school students, like the University of Texas at Austin, which automatically admits Texasstudents in the top 6% of their high school graduating class. Lotteries have also been proposed, where eligible students with high qualifications are randomly selected for acceptance.
But so far, researchers say, none of the alternatives have been as effective as race-conscious admissions.
"Nothing is as good at helping to enroll a more racially equitable class than using race. Nothing comes close to it," says Dominique Baker with Southern Methodist University.
What does the end of affirmative action look like? California has some answers
In 1996, long before this latest Supreme Court challenge, voters in California passed a ballot proposition banning race and gender as factors in state university admissions (as well as hiring and contracting).
What impact has that change in admissions practices had, on both colleges and historically underrepresented communities?
Zachary Bleemer, an incoming assistant professor of economics at Princeton University, has been studying California's quarter-century experiment — and tells Morning Edition it offers takeaways that will resonate beyond state lines.
"I think we can get a pretty good sense of the long-run ramifications of affirmative action bans by seeing what happened in California when that ban was implemented in 1998," he says.
Bleemer says UC Berkeley and UCLA, the state's most selective public universities, saw declines in Black and Hispanic enrollment of about 40% in the year after the ban took effect.
There was no such change in Black and Hispanic enrollment at less selective state schools, he said, because some students lost access to them while others — who couldn't get into the more selective schools — matriculated.
"So you saw pretty big changes at the most selective universities but no net changes in the middle and, if anything, small increases in Black and Hispanic enrollment at the least selective public universities in the state," Bleemer explained.
He's also looked at long-term economic outcomes of the affirmative action ban.
"When you compare Black and Hispanic and Native American Californians who turned 18 in 1998, one year too late for them to take advantage of the University of California's prior affirmative action policies, you see that they enroll at less selective universities because affirmative action was unavailable," he says. "And that has long-run ramifications for those students."
Those students were less likely to earn graduate degrees — some lower-testing students were less likely to earn undergraduate degrees at all — or degrees in more lucrative STEM fields.
"And if you follow them into the labor market, for the subsequent 15 or 20 years, they're earning about 5% lower wages than they would have earned if they'd had access to more selective universities under affirmative action," he says.
However, Bleemer notes, there was no commensurate gain in long-run outcomes for the white and Asian students who ended up at those more prestigious universities instead.
"It seems like these very selective public universities in California just provided greater value to relatively disadvantaged Black and Hispanic students who came from lower-income neighborhoods, had poorer job networks, relatively less access to otherwise successful peers, and who were thus able to better take advantage of the resources provided by these super selective universities than the white and Asian students who took their places," he said.
Here's what Biden told the Education Department to do next
President Biden said Thursday that he's directed the U.S. Department of Education to analyze which practices help and hurt colleges' efforts to build more diverse and inclusive student bodies.
Shortly after his remarks, the White House released a fact sheet with more details on what that effort will involve. It said the Biden administration is, among other things:
- Providing colleges and universities with clarity on what admissions practices and additional programs to support students remain lawful. The Department of Education and Department of Justice will provide resources to colleges and universities addressing lawful admissions practices within the next 45 days, as colleges prepare for the next application cycle. The Department of Education will also provide assistance to colleges and universities in administering programs to support students from underserved communities.
- Convening a National Summit on Educational Opportunity. The Department of Education will host a national summit on equal opportunity in postsecondary education next month with advocates, student leaders, college and university administrators, researchers, and state, local, and Tribal leaders to share lessons learned, innovative strategies, and develop additional resources for colleges and students to expand access to educational opportunity.
- Releasing a report on strategies for increasing diversity and educational opportunity, including meaningful consideration of adversity. Following the Summit, the Department of Education will produce a report by this September, elevating promising admissions practices to build inclusive, diverse student bodies, including by using measures of adversity. The report will address topics including the impact of current admissions practices that may negatively affect the admissions chances of students from underserved communities; strategies to integrate measures of adversity in admissions; outreach and recruitment programs to create diverse applicant pools; strategies for retention and degree completion; and financial and other support programs to make college attainable.
- Increasing transparency in college admissions and enrollment practices. The administration is committed to providing transparent data with respect to admissions and enrollment. The Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics will consider ways to collect and publish more information related to college application and enrollment trends. This includes ways that information might be validly disaggregated by race and ethnicity, first-generation status, legacy status, and other measures. Information in these areas could help higher education leaders, academics and the general public address potential barriers to college recruitment, admissions, and enrollment.
Some in higher ed say there's a 'glimmer of hope' in Roberts' majority opinion
At the end of the court's opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that schools could still consider an applicant's discussion of how race affected his or her life.
"Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant's discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise. But, despite the dissent's assertion to the contrary, universities may not simply establish through application essays or other means the regime we hold unlawful today."
Many higher education leaders and experts read this part of the opinion as an open door in implementing holistic admissions.
“There is a glimmer of hope. There is certainly an opening,” says Angel Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, referencing Roberts’ final thought.
“There’s going to be different ways that students will be able to express their entire lived experience.”
President Biden also made note of the line in his address on Thursday.
Dominique Baker, a professor of education policy at Southern Methodist University, said this: “That tells me that there are some pathways forward. But are those pathways forward the most effective ways of trying to achieve more racial equity within college admissions? No.”
More GOP presidential candidates weigh in
Reactions to today's affirmative action rulings continue to stream in, including from more Republican presidential candidates.
Former Texas Rep. Will Hurd, who has billed himself as a "common sense" candidate since joining the race a week ago, tweeted out a statement focused on systemic education inequality.
"With or without affirmative action, we are failing to prepare too many of our black and brown students for higher education," he said, adding: "Our elementary, middle, and high schools need the right support from state governments and the federal government … otherwise this is going to continue to plague our kids for generations to come."
With or without affirmative action, we are failing to prepare too many of our black and brown students for higher education. That’s the problem. We have income inequality because we have education inequality. Our elementary, middle, and high schools need the right support from…— Will Hurd (@WillHurd) June 29, 2023
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has made a national name for himself by taking on culture war topics including curriculum and DEI efforts in schools and universities, praised the Supreme Court in a tweet.
"College admissions should be based on merit and applicants should not be judged on their race or ethnicity," he wrote, adding that the court had "ended discrimination by colleges and universities."
College admissions should be based on merit and applicants should not be judged on their race or ethnicity.— Ron DeSantis (@RonDeSantis) June 29, 2023
The Supreme Court has correctly upheld the Constitution and ended discrimination by colleges and universities.
Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina told Fox News that Thursday is a good day for America.
"This is the day where we understand that being judged by the content of our character, not the color of our skin, is what our Constitution wants," he said, adding that "a more perfect union" is a work in progress.
This is the day we understand that being judged by the content of our character, not the color of our skin, is what our Constitution intended.— Tim Scott (@votetimscott) June 29, 2023
Today's SCOTUS decision on Affirmative Action is good news for every single corridor of this nation and one we should celebrate. pic.twitter.com/vCd4cm0f7t
And Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson tweeted that the ruling "strikes a blow against identity politics."
"It's time to move beyond race-based admissions," he wrote. "Colleges are supporting diversity by reducing legacy preferences and increasing financial aid."
Michelle Obama reflects on her own college experience and what today means
Former first lady Michelle Obama says today is a reminder that "we've got to do the work not just to enact policies that reflect our values of equity and fairness, but to truly make those values real in all of our schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods."
Obama reflected on her own experience as one of few Black students on her college campus (she studied sociology and African-American studies at Princeton University before attending Harvard Law School).
She said she'd worked hard and was proud to get into such a respected school, but constantly wondered whether people thought she'd gotten there because of affirmative action.
"But the fact is this: I belonged," she said.
"And semester after semester, decade after decade, for more than half a century, countless students like me showed they belonged, too. It wasn’t just the kids of color who benefitted, either. Every student who heard a perspective they might not have encountered, who had an assumption challenged, who had their minds and their hearts opened gained a lot as well. It wasn’t perfect, but there’s no doubt that it helped offer new ladders of opportunity for those who, throughout our history, have too often been denied a chance to show how fast they can climb."
Obama said students at campuses across the country have gotten — and still get — special consideration for all sorts of things, whether they have alumni parents or athletic talent or the money to pay for tutors and test prep.
People don't usually question if they belong: "So often, we just accept that money, power, and privilege are perfectly justifiable forms of affirmative action." Meanwhile, she said, kids growing up like she did are expected to compete on a playing field that's anything but level.
"So today, my heart breaks for any young person out there who’s wondering what their future holds — and what kinds of chances will be open to them," Obama added. "And while I know the strength and grit that lies inside kids who have always had to sweat a little more to climb the same ladders, I hope and I pray that the rest of us are willing to sweat a little, too."
Clarence Thomas has long been a critic of affirmative action
Justice Clarence Thomas finally got his long-awaited wish: The gutting of affirmative action in the U.S.
Part of his disdain for affirmative action policies, a long-known opinion of the justice, stems from his own ties to it, according to reports.
Filmmaker Michael Kirk, who examined Thomas and his wife's path to power in a PBS documentary, spoke to Fresh Airearlier this year about the justice's history with, and feelings toward, affirmative action.
Thomas went to school in the late 1960s at Holy Cross in Massachusetts, a Catholic school with 2,000 white students and 28 Black students. Thomas was among the first classes to benefit from affirmative action at Holy Cross, Kirk said.
Thomas continued to work hard and achieved academic success as a young man, but as he was coming up, his objection to affirmative action grew. This stemmed from his belief that there was a perception that he was a Black man who didn't earn his way, Kirk said.
Later, Thomas attended Yale Law School, where other students thought he was there only because he was Black.
During Thomas' confirmation hearing, in 1991, he called out affirmative action publicly, saying that it can undermine the “self-esteem and self-respect” of the very people it’s supposed to help, according to Slate.
In his lengthy concurrence published Thursday, Thomas cited his earlier dissent in a 2003 SCOTUS case, Grutter v. Bollinger, which upheld affirmative action. In that case, he said that considering race in higher education admissions violated the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.
In Thursday's concurrence, Thomas wrote: "The Court today makes clear that, in the future, universities wishing to discriminate based on race in admissions must articulate and justify a compelling and measurable state interest based on concrete evidence."
Department of Justice calls the decisions a serious setback for educational opportunity
In a statement following the rulings, Attorney General Merrick Garland said the Supreme Court "undercuts efforts by universities across the country to create a diverse group of graduates prepared to lead in an increasingly diverse nation."
"It will significantly set back efforts to advance educational opportunity for all Americans. And it upends nearly 50 years of precedent," he said.
Garland added that the Department of Justice will remain committed to furthering student diversity.
“In the coming weeks, we will work with the Department of Education to provide resources to college and universities on what admissions practices and programs remain lawful following the Court’s decision," he said.
Biden has guidance for colleges as they reexamine their policies
In his remarks at the White House, President Biden called for a new path forward that is consistent with the law, protects diversity and expands opportunity.
He offered some such guidance to colleges and universities who are reviewing their admissions systems in light of today's decision, calling on them to stand by their commitment to diversity.
Biden proposed they consider a new standard when selecting from among the most qualified applicants: the adversity that students have overcome to get there.
That means examining their financial means, where they grew up and which hardships they've faced in their lives, including racial discrimination, he said, adding that the court doesn't explicitly prohibit colleges from considering applicants' discussion of how race has affected their lives.
"Discrimination still exists in America," he repeated several times. "Today's decision does not change that."
Biden said colleges should recognize and value the challenges that students have faced on their path to higher education, but too often reward only those who are wealthy and well-connected. He called for a higher education system that benefits everyone, from Appalachia to Atlanta and beyond.
Biden directed the U.S. Department of Education to analyze which practices help build more diverse and inclusive student bodies, and which practices hold them back.
He also called for companies not to use the court's ruling as an "excuse to turn away from diversity."
"I know today's decision is a severe disappointment to so many people, including me, but we cannot let the decision be a permanent setback for our country," Biden concluded. "We have to find a way forward. We need to remember that promise of America is big enough for everyone to succeed. That's the work of my administration, and I'm always going to fight for that."
'This is not a normal court,' Biden says
At the end of his remarks, Biden promised reporters that there would be plenty of time to keep talking about today's affirmative action decisions and their impact going forward.
As he walked away from the podium, a reporter referenced comments from the Congressional Black Caucus, which said the Supreme Court's ruling had "thrown into question its own legitimacy."
"Is this a rogue court?" the reporter asked.
Biden paused, his hand on the doorknob, and slowly turned back to face his audience.
"This is not a normal court," he said after several seconds. He walked out of the room without responding to the next question, about whether there should be term limits for justices.
Biden says 'we cannot let this decision be the last word'
President Biden slammed the affirmative action rulings in brief remarks at the White House, underscoring the importance of diversity and imploring colleges not to walk away from it.
He said that for more than four decades — and as recently as 2016 — the court has recognized that colleges can use race as one factor among many when deciding whom to admit from a qualified pool of applicants.
"Today, the court once again walked away from decades of precedent," he said, referencing a dissenting opinion.
He said affirmative action is widely misunderstood, with many people wrongly believing it allows unqualified students to be admitted over those who are more qualified.
In fact, he said, students must meet certain qualifications set by the school, like test scores, grades and other criteria. "Then and only then," he said, do schools consider other factors, including race, to admit students from this qualified pool.
Biden stressed that diversity is one of America's greatest strengths, pointing to the military as a model and higher education as another example.
"I believe our colleges are stronger when they're racially diverse," he said. "Our nation is stronger, because we are tapping into the full range of talent in this nation."
He said that while talent and hard work are everywhere across the country, equal opportunity is not. "We cannot let this decision be the last word," he said twice.
"While the court can render a decision, it cannot change what America stands for," Biden added. "America's an idea, unique in the world, an idea of hope and opportunity, of possibilities, of giving everyone a fair shot, of leaving no one behind. We've never fully lived up to it, but we've never walked away from it either."
And, he added, we will not walk away from it now.
The Harvard case hit a particular nerve for these justices
The Harvard case hit a variety of nerves for the justices. Five of them have deep connections to the school. Indeed Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson was recused from the case because she sat on the Harvard Board of Overseers during part of the litigation.
She was among the four justices, including the chief justice, who either attended Harvard College, Harvard Law School or both. Justice Kagan, in addition, served as dean of the law school for six years, and Justice Brett Kavanaugh taught there.
The Harvard case has a particular resonance because the school has a sordid history of imposing Jewish quotas in the 1920s, '30s and '40s to limit the number of Jewish students on campus.
That history has allowed lawyers for Students for Fair Admissions, the nonprofit behind the Supreme Court challenges, to claim that at Harvard, "Asians are the new Jews." Perhaps because of that asserted link to history, Harvard decided to have a full-blown trial that lasted more than two weeks and involved years of production of documents and hundreds of thousands of emails.
And when the dust settled, both the district court judge and the court of appeals found "no evidence" of discrimination against Asian Americans — a fact that Harvard's lawyer, Seth Waxman, repeatedly emphasized on Monday.
Professors worry today's ruling could impact programs, scholarships and course offerings
Today's ruling could have implications beyond just admissions — it could affect financial aid and efforts by campuses to create communities of students from diverse backgrounds.
"We have to think beyond just the who-gets-in and who-gets-to-enroll piece," says Dominique Baker, a professor at Texas' Southern Methodist University.
Baker wonders, for example, if a program designed to increase the number of Black doctors — with support to complete the pre-med curriculum and get into medical school — will now be challenged.
Mitchell Chang, who studies diversity in education at UCLA, says after statewide bans on race-conscious admissions went into effect in Michigan, California and Washington, modifications to what was once more targeted as "race-conscious scholarships, race-conscious programming, race-conscious recruitment" followed.
Today’s ruling, he says, "may have a much broader sweep, in fact, than just with admissions."
OiYan Poon, a visiting education professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, points to early court filings from the plaintiffs in the Harvard case, arguing that "any use of race or ethnicity in the educational setting" is unconstitutional — not just in admissions.
"Will that mean the closure of Asian American cultural centers?" Poon wonders. "Will that mean the end of Native American studies on college campuses? Will that mean the end of historically Black colleges and universities [and] the designations of minority-serving institutions?"
President Biden is expected to speak momentarily
President Biden is expected to deliver remarks on today's Supreme Court ruling banning race-conscious college admissions.
We'll bring you updates on his remarks. You can also find a livestream at the top of this page (you may need to hit "refresh" to see it).
Harvard says it will comply with the SCOTUS decision
Harvard said it will abide by the Supreme Court's decision in which race-conscious admissions in higher education were rejected.
Harvard was a defendant in one of the two cases that the high court heard on affirmative action policies, Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College.
Several leaders of Harvard, including the university's president Lawrence S. Bacow, wrote in a letter to the school's community that going forward the school "will determine how to preserve, consistent with the Court’s new precedent, our essential values."
It went on, "The heart of our extraordinary institution is its people. Harvard will continue to be a vibrant community whose members come from all walks of life, all over the world."
The court is expected to rule on student loan relief tomorrow
This ruling on race-based admissions isn't the only thing that's threatening to shake up the higher education landscape this week.
Tomorrow, the Supreme Court is expected to issue opinions for the last three remaining cases this term. Among them is Biden v. Nebraska, which could determine whether a plan for student loan debt relief can move forward.
A handful of Republican-dominated states — Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa, Arkansas, Kansas and South Carolina — have asked the Supreme Court to permanently block the Biden administration's student loan forgiveness program. The states contend that the president exceeded his legal authority when he implemented a program to cancel up to $20,000 in debt for people holding federal student loans.
The details of the case are fairly straightforward: Does the 2003 law, known as the HEROES Act, give the president and his secretary of education the power to authorize federal student loan forgiveness? The case was argued in February.
Read more about the case:
What GOP presidential candidates are saying about the rulings
Several of the Republican candidates running for president in 2024 have responded publicly to today's court decisions. Here's what they're saying:
The former president said in a Truth Social post that "people with extraordinary ability and everything else necessary for success, including future greatness for our country, are finally being rewarded."
He said the ruling — that "everyone was waiting and hoping for" — will keep the U.S. competitive with the rest of the world.
"We're going back to all merit-based — and that's the way it should be!" he added.
A spokesperson for Trump's Make America Great Again Inc PAC also released a statement giving him credit for making the decision possible.
"President Donald Trump made today's historic decision to end the racist college admissions process possible because he delivered on his promise to appoint constitutionalist justices," Karoline Leavitt wrote. "America is a better nation as a result of the historic rulings led by Donald Trump's three Supreme Court nominees."
The former vice president released a statement praising the decision — and, similarly, connecting it to the work of the Trump administration.
“There is no place for discrimination based on race in the United States, and I am pleased that the Supreme Court has put an end to this egregious violation of civil and constitutional rights in admissions processes, which only served to perpetuate racism," Pence said. "I am honored to have played a role in appointing three of the Justices that ensured today’s welcomed decision, and as President I will continue to appoint judges who will strictly apply the law rather than twisting it to serve woke and progressive ends.”
The former South Carolina governor and Trump-era ambassador to the U.N. is also the first woman of color to be a major candidate for the Republican nomination.
She praised the affirmative action decision in a tweet, saying it "will help every student—no matter their background—have a better opportunity to achieve the American dream."
The world admires America because we value freedom & opportunity. SCOTUS re-affirmed those values today. Picking winners & losers based on race is fundamentally wrong.— Nikki Haley (@NikkiHaley) June 29, 2023
This decision will help every student—no matter their background—have a better opportunity to achieve the…
The entrepreneur-turned-presidential-candidate tweeted: "Affirmative action is a badly failed experiment: time to put a nail in the coffin & restore colorblind meritocracy."
He later expanded on that in a two-minute video posted to Twitter, in which he railed against affirmative action and outlined his plans to crack down on it as president:
"As President, I will end it in every sphere of American life. Meritocracy and 'equity' are fundamentally incompatible. Mark my words: 'elite' universities will now start to play complex games to achieve the same results using shadow tactics like deprioritizing test scores. This is unlawful and I will instruct the Justice Department to end these illegal practices."
Ramaswamy also vowed to repeal Lyndon Johnson's "disastrous" Executive Order 11246, which mandates that federal contractors adopt race-based hiring preferences.
"Top companies now regularly disfavor qualified applicants who happen to be white or Asian, which spawns resentment and condescension toward black and Hispanic hires," he wrote. "Everyone loses in the end. Time to restore colorblind meritocracy once and for all."
Military academies are exempt from the ban
In his portion of the majority, Chief Justice Roberts explicitly exempted military academies from this ban on race-conscious admissions "in light of the potentially distinct interests" they may present.
Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson's 'let them eat cake' dissent fires up social media
In her dissent against the Supreme Court's decision striking down affirmative action, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote a cutting rebuke against the majority.
"With let-them-eat-cake obliviousness, today, the majority pulls the ripcord and announces 'colorblindness for all' by legal fiat. But deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life," she wrote.
"And having so detached itself from this country’s actual past and present experiences, the Court has now been lured into interfering with the crucial work that UNC and other institutions of higher learning are doing to solve America’s real-world problems," she continued. "No one benefits from ignorance. Although formal racelinked legal barriers are gone, race still matters to the lived experiences of all Americans in innumerable ways, and today’s ruling makes things worse, not better."
Her dissent was tweeted and re-shared by high court watchers who similarly shared her evident anger at the majority decision.
Pennsylvania state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta called it the "dissent of the century."
Adam Harris, a writer for The Atlantic, wrote on Twitterthat Jackson's dissent echoes Justice Thurgood Marshall in his comment during oral arguments in the 1970s.
Congress, like SCOTUS, is split along ideological lines on affirmative action
Lawmakers’ response to the decision to strike down established race-based considerations in college admissions fell predictably along partisan lines, with Republicans cheering the decision and Democrats condemning it.
There is no expectation lawmakers will take up any legislation affecting affirmative action policies in this divided Congress.
“The consequences of this decision will be felt immediately and across the country, as students of color will face an admission cycle next year with fewer opportunities to attend the same colleges and universities than their parents and older siblings,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “These negative consequences could continue for generations, as the historic harms of exclusion and discrimination in education and society are exacerbated.”
Republicans, however, praised a decision that would end, as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called it “illegal social engineering.”
“Today’s rulings make clear that colleges may not continue discriminating against bright and ambitious students based on the color of their skin,” McConnell added.
Response from members of the Congressional Black Caucus was particularly sharp. "For some reason, every time people of color take a step forward, this nation finds a way to make them take three steps back,” said Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla. “The Supreme Court's decision on affirmative action is unconscionable, out of touch, and a significant setback.”
Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee, who is running for the Senate, said in a statement that after her home state of California effectively banned affirmative action in public education systems in the late 1990s, the share of nonwhite students has declined. An August 2020 study on the impact of that ban on Black and Latino students backs up Lee’s statement.
“This decision is just another example of the far-right attempting to uphold white supremacy and classism in our institutions,” Lee said. “We must fight to preserve policies that address racial inequality and use every tool at our disposal to advance equity in education. Ignoring race will not end racism.”
This decision has implications for the health of all Americans, HHS says
As if the stakes weren't high enough, the head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has drawn a direct line between today's rulings and the health of people across the country.
Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement that people of color have been excluded from attending medical school and joining medical organizations for generations. Despite years of progress, there is still a "significant deficit" in the number of Black and Latino medical students and doctors.
"We need more health workers, especially those who look like and share the experiences of the people they serve," he said. "This builds trust between provider and patient, and helps to improve the overall quality of care."
Becerra said by threatening access to higher education for historically underrepresented groups, the court's rulings today will make it even harder for universities to help shape future health experts and workers that reflect the diversity of the country.
"The health and wellbeing of Americans will suffer as a result," he said.
'Not the outcome we hoped for': UNC-Chapel Hill responds
Kevin Guskiewicz, the chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says, "While not the outcome we hoped for," the school will carefully review the court's decision and take any steps necessary to comply with the law.
"Carolina remains firmly committed to bringing together talented students with different perspectives and life experiences and continues to make an affordable, high-quality education accessible to the people of North Carolina and beyond," he added.
President Biden is expected to give remarks on the decision
President Biden is scheduled to deliver remarks at 12:30 p.m. ET on today's ruling against affirmative action.
We'll carry that address live on this page. Stay tuned.
Read the full decision
The full ruling is available below (fair warning; it's 237 pages long):
Today's rulings could hit race-conscious programs in the workplace
The court’s decision raises questions for the future of employer-run initiatives and programs that consider race — which exist extensively across the country.
Though the opinion focuses on higher education, some legal experts worry it could lead to changes in commonplace workplace initiatives like diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs and environmental, social and governance (ESG) commitments.
Many influential companies have already weighed in on this debate, advocating for maintaining affirmative action policies in higher education.
Last summer, more than 80 major corporations and businesses filed three briefs with the Supreme Court in support, arguing the policy helps increase workforce diversity and improve company performance.
"Experience in a diverse university environment prepares students to interact with and serve racially diverse client and customer bases and to work with people of all backgrounds," according to one briefwritten by over 60 prominent businesses, including Apple, General Electric, Google and Johnson & Johnson.
"The result is a business community more aligned with the public, increased profits, and business success," it added.
The rulings jeopardize Black Americans' hard-fought progress, says the NAACP
The NAACP is condemning the Supreme Court's decisions and reaffirming its commitment to supporting equal access to education for Black students.
NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson said in a statement that affirmative action exists because institutions of higher education can't be trusted to enact policies that embrace diversity and inclusion.
Race continues to shape the identities and quality of life for Black Americans, he added, and "in a society still scarred by the wounds of racial disparities, the Supreme Court has displayed a willful ignorance of our reality."
He said the NAACP will not be deterred in its fight to hold institutions and leaders accountable "for their role in embracing diversity no matter what."
"We will not allow hate-inspired people in power to turn back the clock and undermine our hard-won victories," Johnson added.
Johnson told MSNBC that "the worst thing about affirmative action is that it created a Clarence Thomas," who benefited from the program only to deny talented Black individuals that same opportunity.
An education law professor makes the case for affirmative action
Hours before the Supreme Court ruled against affirmative action, a scholar-activist spoke to Morning Edition about why race should be a factor in college admissions.
"We still have a problem in the United States with racism and discrimination and implicit bias; as long as we're not addressing these issues ... how people perceive race will continue to be a problem in this country," says Dana Thompson Dorsey, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of South Florida.
Dorsey acknowledges the plaintiffs' issues with "checking the box" when it comes to race and Harvard's use of legacy admissions.
"I understand the argument they are making, and the argument they're making is actually what many of us who are proponents of affirmative action make: That race has been a factor when it is actually benefiting — and has typically benefited — white and oftentimes wealthy Americans," she said. "But because we still have this issue of race and racism and discrimination in our country, that needs to be considered — as well as how we define meritocracy."
She tells NPR's Steve Inskeep that she agrees that affirmative action should be temporary: "But so should racism."
"So should the assumption that people who are admitted into institutions like Harvard or UNC Chapel Hill who are underrepresented minorities are not qualified, when they are very much are qualified but are oftentimes ... appear to be not as qualified because of their race, and that they're somehow getting preferential treatment," she adds. "But for hundreds of years white people have gotten preferential treatment, when Black and brown people weren't even allowed to get ... a K-12 education, let alone a higher ed education."
A simple guide to the legal questions the court considered — and why the two cases overlapped
At issue in today's decisions were affirmative action programs at the University of North Carolina, which until the 1950s did not admit Black students, and Harvard University, which was the model for the Supreme Court's 1978 decision declaring that colleges and universities may consider race as one of many factors, from the applicant's geographical and family background to their special talents in science, math, athletics, and even whether the applicant is the child of the school's alumni.
The two cases overlap. Because UNC is a state school, the question was whether its affirmative-action program violates the 14th Amendment's guarantee to equal protection of the law.
And even though Harvard is a private institution, it is still covered by federal anti-discrimination laws because it accepts federal money for a wide variety of programs.
The group behind the challenges celebrates — and says it will be watching
Students for Fair Admissions, the nonprofit group behind the affirmative action challenges, is applauding the court's decisions on Thursday morning.
Founder and president Edward Blum, a conservative activist who has long campaigned against colleges using race and ethnicity in admissions decisions, said today's ruling "marks the beginning of the restoration of the colorblind legal covenant that binds together our multi-racial, multi-ethnic nation."
He said they also reestablish the founding principles of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which forbids treating Americans differently by race.
Supporters of affirmative action counter that institutions of higher education should consider race as one of many factors in deciding which of the qualified applicants to admit.
Blum said as of today, U.S. colleges and universities have a "legal and moral obligation" to remove all racial and ethnic classification boxes from undergraduate and postgraduate application forms.
He also told administrators to note that "the law will not tolerate direct proxies for racial classifications." He warned that they must follow the letter and spirit of the law and that his group will be paying attention.
“Looking ahead to the upcoming admissions cycle, SFFA and its counsel have been closely monitoring potential changes in admissions procedures should the Court reach a decision like the one today," he said. "We remain vigilant and intend to initiate litigation should universities defiantly flout this clear ruling and the dictates of Title VI and the Equal Protection Clause."
Students for Fair Admissions will hold a press conference in Washington, D.C. at 2 p.m. ET.
What does this mean for college admissions?
Today's decision could end the ability of colleges and universities, public and private, to do what most say they still need to do: consider race as one of many factors in deciding which of the qualified applicants is to be admitted.
Recent research from Georgetown ran simulations to see what would happen if race was removed from college admissions and found that a national ban would decrease the ethnic diversity of students at selective colleges if the current process was not radically redesigned.
This echoes previous research conducted in several states that have bans on race-conscious admissions from ballot measures. Those state-wide bans include Michigan since 2006, California since 1996 (and reaffirmed in 2020), and Washington since 1998 (and reaffirmed in 2019).
There are nearly 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S., and only a small portion — slightly more than 200 — have highly selective admissions — where fewer than 50% of applicants get in. That's just over 200 schools where a race-conscious admissions process could make a significant difference in who gets in.
Here's what the court said as justification for this decision
The ruling included two cases. The case concerning the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was 6-3 along ideological lines; in the Harvard case, the vote was 6-2, with Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson recusing.
Here's some of what was included in the majority ruling:
“The Court has permitted race-based college admissions only within the confines of narrow restrictions: such admissions programs must comply with strict scrutiny, may never use race as a stereotype or negative, and must—at some point—end."
“Respondents’ admissions systems fail each of these criteria and must therefore be invalidated under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”
“At the same time, nothing prohibits universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected the applicant’s life, so long as that discussion is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability that the particular applicant can contribute to the university."
"Many universities have for too long wrongly concluded that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned, but the color of their skin. This Nation’s constitutional history does not tolerate that choice.”
Supreme Court rules affirmative action in college admissions is unconstitutional
The Supreme Court has rejected race-conscious admissions in higher education, overturning more than 40 years of legal precedent.
The ruling in two cases, one involving Harvard University and the other the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, hands opponents of affirmative action a major victory.
The decision reversed decades of precedent upheld over the years by narrow court majorities that included Republican-appointed justices. It could end the ability of colleges and universities, public and private, to do what most say they still need to do: consider race as one of many factors in deciding which of the qualified applicants is to be admitted.
In the Harvard case, the court considered whether the school discriminated against Asian American students in the admissions process. With UNC, the court considered whether the school was using race-conscious admissions in a limited enough manner. The conservative activist group Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) was behind both the Harvard and the UNC cases.
This comes less than a decade since the last time the court ruled on affirmative action; in 2016 it ruled that colleges could consider race in admissions.
Follow NPR for live updates as we unpack what this news means for higher education, student diversity and the legal landscape.