By Joseph Axe
(Reuters) – The US Supreme Court will rule at the end of June whether colleges and universities will be allowed to continue to consider race as part of their student admissions decisions, a practice known as affirmative action.
Here’s an explanation of these policies, their history, and the possible ramifications of the court’s decision.
WHAT IS AFFIRMATIVE ACTION?
In the context of higher education, affirmative action typically refers to admissions policies aimed at increasing the number of Black, Hispanic, and other minority students on campus.
Colleges and universities that consider race have said they do so as part of a holistic approach that assesses every aspect of an application, including grades, test scores and extracurricular activities.
The goal of race-aware admissions policies is to increase student diversity to improve the educational experience for all students. Schools also use recruiting programs and grants designed to encourage diversity, but the Supreme Court’s lawsuit focuses on admission.
WHICH SCHOOLS CONSIDER RACE?
While many schools do not disclose details about their admissions procedures, consideration of race is more common in selective schools that reject most of their applicants.
In a 2019 survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, about a quarter of schools said race had a “significant” or “moderate” impact on admissions, while more than half reported race played no role at all.
Nine states have banned the use of race in public college and university admissions policies: Arizona, California, Florida, Idaho, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Washington.
WHAT ARE THE CURRENT DISPUTES ABOUT?
The Supreme Court is weighing two cases brought by Students for Fair Admissions, a group led by Edward Blum, a conservative legal strategist who has campaigned against affirmative action for years.
In one case, it is alleged that Harvard’s admissions policy unlawfully discriminates against Asian-American applicants. The other alleges that the University of North Carolina unlawfully discriminates against white and Asian-American job applicants.
The schools deny those claims. They have said that race is determinative in only a small number of cases and that blocking the practice would result in a significant drop in the number of immigrant students on campus.
The court’s conservative justices, who hold a 6-3 majority, expressed skepticism about the role of race in confessions during oral arguments in October. Most legal analysts expect the court to rule against the schools.
HOW DID THE SUPREME COURT RULE IN THE PAST?
The court has largely upheld race-conscious confessions for decades, but not without limits.
A divided Supreme Court addressed the issue in the seminal 1978 case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, after schools began using affirmative action in response to the civil rights era to correct the effects of racial segregation.
Judge Lewis Powell ruled that schools could not use affirmative action to right past racial discrimination and ended the university’s practice of setting aside a certain number of seats for minorities.
Nevertheless, Powell found that increasing campus diversity was a “compelling interest” because students of all races—not just minorities—would receive a better education if exposed to different viewpoints. Powell ruled that schools could weight race in admissions so long as it remained one factor among many.
In 2003, the court rejected the University of Michigan’s use of a system that awards “points” to minority applicants as going too far, but upheld Bakke’s central finding that schools could use race as one of several factors of admission.
The court again upheld race-conscious admissions in 2016 in a Blum-backed challenge to University of Texas policies.
WHAT ARE THE POSSIBLE RESULTS?
The court could choose to keep the current system, abolish race-conscious confessions altogether, or take something in-between, such as stricter restrictions on the practice.
A decision prohibiting affirmative action would force elite colleges and universities to review their policies and seek new ways to ensure diversity in their student populations. Many schools have said other measures would not be as effective, resulting in fewer immigrant students on campuses.
In briefs filed with the Supreme Court, the University of California and the University of Michigan — top public school systems from states that have banned race-conscious admissions — said they spent hundreds of millions of dollars on alternative programs designed to improve diversity, but that those efforts fall far short of goals.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax in New York; editing by Will Dunham and Colleen Jenkins)