College administrators are reevaluating how they can admit racially diverse classes, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled colleges are no longer allowed to consider race in the admissions process.
The 6-3 ruling came after decades of legal precedent that allowed colleges to consider race as one of many factors in the admissions process. This practice has been commonly known as race-conscious admissions or race-based affirmative action.
Those who oppose race-based affirmative action argue that the practice is not necessary in 2023 and that colleges discriminate against white and Asian American applicants. Some call it “reverse discrimination.”
Supporters of affirmative action argue that this decision will be a major setback for racial equality in the United States. For almost half a century, many colleges have adopted a holistic approach to admissions.
“Holistic admissions means that you look at a student within their broader context, and that’s how you assess admissions,” said Dominique Baker, an associate professor of education policy at SMU.
Their context includes the opportunities they were given in the high school they attended, which is often dictated by their neighborhood.
Race had been one of many factors considered in the process, based on colleges’ interest in admitting a diverse class, which became legal when the court first heard a case on college admissions, Baker said.
In the 1978 case, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the court ruled that colleges are not allowed to reserve spots for students of a certain race, but they are allowed to consider race as one of many factors reviewed in the holistic admissions process.
The case set precedent that increasing diversity on campuses is a “compelling interest,” because students of all races learn better when exposed to diversity.
In a 2003 case, the court struck down a case against the University of Michigan, reinforcing the Bakke decision.
Meanwhile, nine states have banned the use of race in admissions: Arizona, California, Florida, Idaho, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Washington. The first one was California in 1996.
The University of California and the University of Michigan, in briefs filed with the court in October 2022, said they have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on alternative ways to improve diversity, but that they have struggled to meet their goals.
The leadership of the University of California system stated that alternative measures have helped with increasing geographical and socioeconomic diversity, but that hasn’t translated into more racial diversity.
Two of California’s most selective public colleges, UC Berkeley and UCLA, had their Black and Latino enrollment drop by half within two years of the policy change.
Some alternative strategies include focusing on low-income and first-generation college students, requiring additional essays that would demonstrate an applicant’s background, eliminating test score requirements and automatically admitting the top students from every high school in a given state, a measure Texas has already adopted.
But class-based affirmative action doesn’t mean that a class of freshman students will be racially diverse.
Michael K. Young, a law professor and former president of Texas A&M, explained that using a class-based approach, colleges are still likely to admit more white students because there are more white people in the total population.
Research has found that class-based affirmative action does not achieve the same level of racial diversity as race-based affirmative action.
The court’s decision predominantly impacts highly competitive colleges, Young said. Most applicants, regardless of race, are denied admissions to these institutions.
“Harvard educates a stunningly small percentage of human beings,” said Young, who attended Harvard Law School. “Texas A&M educates more students than all the Ivy League and Stanford combined.”
Harvard’s website states that in recent admissions cycles, 4,000 applicants were ranked first in their high school class, 8,000 had perfect grade-point averages and 20,000 scored 700 or above on the SAT math test (out of 800).
But the undergraduate class only offers about 2,000 spots, which means that thousands of applicants with the best academic credentials were rejected, regardless of race.
Unlike Harvard, the majority of colleges in the U.S. accept all or most applicants. Dallas College’s acceptance rate is 100%, while the University of Texas at Dallas accepts 87% of its applicant pool.
Meanwhile, the University of Texas at Austin only accepts 29% of applicants and Rice University has an even lower acceptance rate of 9%.
But a concern among supporters of race-conscious admissions is that the court’s decision could have a chilling effect on policies and programs unrelated to admissions.
Baker said that in the aftermath of Michigan banning race-conscious admissions in 2006, some colleges changed programs that offered scholarships for Black and Hispanic students.
“Colleges were scared of litigation,” Baker said. “There is the letter of the law and what colleges decide to do to protect themselves.”
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