Opinion: Can campus diversity survive the U.S. Supreme Court?

With the U.S. Supreme Court expected to outlaw race as a factor in college admissions, advocates for campus diversity hope that students of color don’t become less visible.

Historically, the court has permitted colleges to consider a student’s race among the factors in admissions. Known as affirmative action, the policy has been whittled down by the high court over the years.

Under federal law, colleges now can’t have racial quotas or use race as the sole determinant. But campuses can embrace what is described as race-conscious admissions, where race is among an array of factors influencing which applicants are accepted. Those factors typically include academics, test scores, extracurriculars, geography, awards, athletic abilities and whether the applicant’s parents are alums.

This admissions debate fascinates the public, even though it affects the narrow band of colleges where applications far outstrip available seats. A 2019 Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Department of Education data examined admissions data for 1,364 four-year colleges and universities and found more than half of the schools admitted two-thirds or more of their applicants.

Yet, the media focuses on elite campuses with fierce competition for slots: the 17 schools that Pew found admitted fewer than 10% of applicants and the 29 that took only between 10% and 20% of applicants. These include the nation’s Ivy League schools, which produce a disproportionate share of America’s leaders and innovators. (And, in turn, admit a disproportionate share of the offspring of those graduates under an admissions edge for legacy applicants that largely goes unchallenged.)

So, it’s not a surprise that the cases before the court target Harvard with a 2023 admission rate of 3.4% and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, which has an overall acceptance rate of 16.8%. While Edward Blum, the conservative legal strategist behind the cases, and his organization Students for Fair Admissions have also spearheaded court challenges with white students alleging reverse discrimination, these two cases contend race-conscious admissions hurt high-achieving Asian Americans applying to elite campuses.

Many Americans believe the solution to this debate is simple — admit the most qualified applicant. The problem is defining who is most qualified. Is it the student with the highest scores on standardized college admissions exams, which have become far less important here in the aftermath of COVID-19? Is it class grade-point average, which has come under suspicion because of grade inflation? If academic performance were the sole determinant for admission, America’s college campuses would be largely female students from affluent homes.

A recent study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce warned colleges will be less racially diverse if the court requires race-blind admissions. The study examined alternative admissions models that use economic class as a proxy for race to see if diversity could be sustained. (Affirmative action predicated on socioeconomic status is not widely used by colleges at this point.) The study’s verdict: Admissions that rely on socioeconomics won’t advance minority enrollment.

While Black children are three times as likely as white children to live in poverty, there are just more white families in America. (Whites account for 60% of the U.S. population; Black people account for 13%.) In 2021, 3.6 million white children lived in poverty, compared to 2.8 million Black children, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Based on their questions in an October hearing on the case, the conservative-dominated court was skeptical of the contention that diversity faced risks if race was eliminated. There were also doubts voiced on how much diversity mattered. “I’ve heard the word ‘diversity’ quite a few times, and I don’t have a clue what it means. It seems to mean everything for everyone,” said Justice Clarence Thomas.

Representing former University of North Carolina students before the court in defense of race-conscious admissions, David Hinojosa is not as pessimistic as many legal experts that the high court will end affirmative action. Hinojosa is the director of the Educational Opportunities Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

“I can’t tell you that I got a wink from Justice (Brett) Kavanaugh,” he joked at an Education Writers Association national seminar earlier this month in Atlanta. “But I can share that the facts of this lawsuit are on our side, the law, the precedent and the Constitution are on our side. Even if we win, the status quo isn’t good enough. Affirmative action has never been the be-all and cure-all for everything that is wrong in the higher education system and our K-12 system that feeds that system.”

After four years of court battles, the University of Georgia ended affirmative action admissions in 2001. At the time, UGA President Michael Adams acknowledged enrollment on his campus did not mirror the state’s Black population, an issue that still persists. He blamed an inadequate K-12 system, writing in an essay for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “The University of Georgia will never represent the state’s population until the qualified applicant pool produced by K-12 does so, and it’s not even close.”

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