The modern factors by which colleges and universities consider potential applicants have essentially always been highly contested. Are objective measures, like test scores, grades and class rank, superior to other potentially subjective criteria, such as personal essays and extracurriculars? That will remain up to individual schools to decide. However, what isn’t at their discretion is whether or not race will soon be ruled unconstitutional to consider in college admissions, a position which will have extremely harmful consequences on the state of diversity in American higher education.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, affirmative action policies — the idea that some sort of preference regarding minorities should be considered in an effort to end centuries of race and sex discrimination within the United States — are not overwhelmingly popular. Affirmative action’s most hotly contested appearance is within the realm of higher education and college admissions. Specifically, the controversy deals with whether or not race should or even can be considered when accepting or denying potential applicants. On Oct. 31, the Supreme Court again listened to arguments about whether or not race is a constitutionally legitimate factor to consider when admitting students.
The plaintiff who submitted the specific suits to the Supreme Court is a nonprofit organization titled Students for Fair Admissions, whose self-described goal “is to support and participate in litigation that will restore the original principles of our nation’s civil rights movement.” Students for Fair Admissions filed these actions in 2014 against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — a public institution receiving federal and state funding — and Harvard University, an elite private school. Students for Fair Admissions claimed that the process by which these two specific Universities considered applicants was unfair and contained racial bias specifically against Asian American, Pacific Islander and white students. They first appealed to lower courts, who rejected their appeal. They then took the cases to the Supreme Court, which will finally decide whether or not race-conscious admissions operations are constitutional.
Affirmative action policies are not a shiningly perfect strategy for increasing diversity in colleges and universities, and multiple issues, including to what extent race is considered over other factors, complicate affirmative action practices. However, completely abolishing affirmative action in the hopes of establishing some sort of “colorblind” admissions policies overlooks the necessity of policies that correct the long history of inequities in the higher education system. The structure of many affirmative action policies and practices may need to be reformed with more focus on economic inequality rather than racial inequality, but outright mandating that race-conscious admissions is unconstitutional is simply not the answer.
Take the University of California, Berkeley, for example. After California passed Proposition 209 in 1996, outlawing the use of race as an admissions factor at the state’s public universities, the Black student population at the school fell from 6.4 percent to 3.6 percent. At the University of California, Los Angeles, the same phenomenon occurred as the Black and Latino student demographic ratios dropped by almost half. Nearly 20 years later, those percentages have just about reached where they were in 1996.
Diversity has an important place within higher education, as a cornerstone of learning is the consideration of diverse viewpoints and the lived experiences of those that differ from you. Declining numbers of diverse students within higher education institutions are simply unacceptable and, as it seems very likely that the Supreme Court will be overturning and forbidding affirmative action in admissions, schools will rapidly be looking for ways to increase not only racial diversity but economic diversity as well.
Another controversy besides race within college admissions is legacy. High-income legacy students representing an overwhelmingly large proportion of elite universities has garnered the attention of affirmative action advocates for good reason. Harvard favors students who specifically come from four categories abbreviated as “ALDC”— athletes, legacies, dean’s list students and children of faculty. ALDC students are only roughly 5 percent of all applicants to Harvard, but make up a whopping 30 percent of Harvard’s most recently admitted class, and white students are overwhelmingly favored according to this metric. Additionally, nearly two-thirds of Harvard’s student population come from the highest 20 percent of income earners.
Economic inequality and a lack of resources in middle and high schools in both poorer communities and communities of color are often the biggest drivers of why students of color are a minority in many higher education institutions. As the death of affirmative action seems forthcoming, elite schools like Harvard should be looking for other means to increase economic diversity — which may also increase racial diversity — that could eventually end up being more effective than affirmative action. These kinds of programs, including expanding financial aid and supporting recruitment processes for low-income students, may increase racial and economic diversity at these types of schools.
Diversity in higher education obviously has a long way to go, but ending affirmative action without any meaningful replacement is not the solution. While schools will be searching for alternatives to maintain their current levels of diversity, all students will be hurt if diversity numbers fall. Including race in admissions categories alongside other factors is something that is a benefit to all, and the Supreme Court’s eventual killing of it will only be to the detriment of the higher education system.
Samantha Rigante is a freshman majoring in philosophy, politics and law.