The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday against the use of race in college admissions. Though the cases involved two selective universities that considered race as a factor in their admissions processes, the rulings will have nationwide consequences. And the case will likely leave Minnesota students of color wondering about their college options.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts determined that the admissions programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina are unconstitutional—and, therefore, so are the admissions programs at many colleges and universities around the country.
“Because Harvard’s and UNC’s admissions programs lack sufficiently focused and measurable objectives warranting the use of race, unavoidably employ race in a negative manner, involve racial stereotyping, and lack meaningful end points, those admissions programs cannot be reconciled with the guarantees of the Equal Protection Clause,” Roberts wrote.
He added a qualifier: “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.”
What does this ruling mean for Minnesota students and colleges? And what will applying for college look like without affirmative action? Here’s what you need to know.
What is affirmative action, and why has it existed?
The term “affirmative action” originates from a 1961 executive order by President John F. Kennedy: “The contractor will take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.”
In other words: Institutions should take a proactive approach to make sure that people are treated equally.
That’s the main idea in college admissions, too. When colleges and universities started using affirmative action in the 1960s and 1970s, they hoped to combat past and current-day discrimination, and create a diverse student body. By being conscious of race in the admissions process, advocates argue, they can provide a counterbalance to the barriers that many students of color face.
The U.S. Supreme Court has eroded the use of affirmative action over the years, but upheld it as recently as 2016. Since then, however, the Supreme Court has gained three new conservative justices and undergone a power shift.
What does this ruling do?
“Race cannot be considered as a factor in admissions in higher education,” said Mike Steenson, a professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. He emphasized that he was speaking broadly about the court’s ruling, not about Mitchell Hamline’s admissions policies.
“In prior decisions, diversity in higher education was deemed to be a compelling governmental interest,” he explained. “No more.”
I’m a high school senior getting ready to apply to college. How does this affect me?
It depends on whether the schools you are applying to have historically used affirmative action. If you’re planning on applying to the Minnesota State system, nothing will change. That’s also true if your high school participates in the state’s direct admissions program, in which you can gain admission to 51 colleges and universities throughout the state by meeting certain academic criteria.
If you’re planning on applying to schools that previously used race as a factor, it’s too soon to know how exactly they will change their admission processes. But Steenson recommends thinking about other ways to flesh out your application.
”Anybody who is looking for admission into any college or any university should pay really, really close attention to letters of recommendation, and particularly academic letters of recommendation,” he said. Those letters can “show the potential for academic success and success in college.” They can also describe hardship students have overcome or leadership ability, he said.
Steenson also noted that Roberts’ opinion specifically warned colleges against an overreliance on student essays: ”Universities may not simply establish through application essays or other means the regime we hold unlawful today.”
The Supreme Court did leave one exception to its affirmative action ban: Military academies can continue to use race as a factor for admission.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona urged students of color not to give up on their dreams of higher education.
“I want to send a message to all aspiring students, especially Black, Latino, Asian American, Native American, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, and other students from underserved communities: we see you and we need you,” he said. “Do not let this ruling deter you from pursuing your educational potential. Our colleges and our country itself cannot thrive and compete in the 21st century without your talent, ingenuity, perseverance, and ambition. ”
Do all colleges and universities use affirmative action?
No. For example, none of the 37 colleges and universities in the Minnesota State system use race as a factor in admission. At those schools, nothing will change.
“The colleges and universities of Minnesota State are open-access institutions and do not use race as a criterion for admission, so the ruling by the court on affirmative action does not have any impact on our admissions decisions,” said Doug Anderson, the communications director for Minnesota State.
“We are proud to serve as the beacon of opportunity for our Black and Indigenous communities and other communities of color, first generation families, and families from across the socio-economic spectrum, and we serve more of these students than all other higher education options in the state, combined.”
How did college admissions work until now in schools that consider race?
At some selective schools, including the University of Minnesota and private liberal arts schools, race has historically been one of many factors colleges examine during the admissions process.
Keri Risic, executive director of the office of admissions at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, said that the university has used a “holistic review” process for the past 20 years. The primary factors are academic, she said.
“We admit for student success and readiness to succeed in university, collegiate-level coursework, and ultimately, for students to graduate,” she said.
As part of the holistic review, she said, the admissions team also considers students’ individual circumstances and lived experiences—which could include community service, leadership, talents, evidence of overcoming barriers in educational achievement, and contribution to diversity. This last term, she explained, has been broadly defined to include gender, age, geography, and racial and cultural diversity.
Some of Minnesota’s private colleges use versions of this holistic method, too. Carleton College, Macalester College, and St. Olaf College were among 33 colleges that signed an amicus brief in the case, urging the court not to rule out race as an admissions factor. The colleges submitting the amicus brief said they “have repeatedly concluded that race cannot be excluded entirely from admissions considerations if they are to enroll the diverse classes critical to their educational mission.”
St. Catherine University and the University of St. Thomas signed a similar amicus brief for Catholic colleges.
How are those schools going to change their admissions process?
It’s too soon to say exactly what steps they will take. The University of Minnesota posted an FAQ on Thursday saying that it was reviewing the ruling and would update its processes accordingly.
Rachel Croson, the executive vice president and provost of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, sent an email to students, faculty, and staff about the decision. A working group has been preparing for this decision for months, she said.
“That group will ensure that our processes in undergraduate, graduate, and professional education are compliant with the new state of the law, and that we continue to live out our values of inclusion and access,” she wrote. “We will continue our recruiting efforts that have yielded increased diversity in our entering classes. We remain committed to diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice on all our campuses.”
Suzanne Rivera, the president of Macalester, tweeted a response to the Supreme Court decision. “At Macalester, assembling a diverse student body will remain a top priority and, though we are concerned about the effects of today’s SCOTUS ruling, we are prepared to do everything possible to ensure that the opportunity of a Macalester education remains accessible to everyone,” Rivera wrote.
What has happened in other states that have eliminated affirmative action?
States with affirmative action bans, like California and Michigan, have attempted to find other ways to recruit and support students of color. But despite those efforts, the numbers of Black and Latino students at the most selective schools in those states dropped precipitously and have not recovered.
A Washington Post analysis found that in states with affirmative action bans, less selective schools became more diverse. How? Students of color who would have attended more selective schools often were admitted to less selective institutions instead. More selective and flagship universities, however, did not make improvements toward a more representative student body.
When fewer students of color attend elite institutions, the economic impacts can be lasting. One Yale researcher found that 15 years after California banned affirmative action, the state had about 1,000 fewer high-earning Black and Latino professionals as a result of those individuals attending less prestigious schools.
What does President Joe Biden say?
President Biden voiced his strong disagreement with the ruling and urged colleges not to give up on diversity. He proposed that colleges develop a new standard that takes into account adversity that students have faced. He also criticized the justices: “This is not a normal court,” he said.