On Thursday, June 29, the United States Supreme Court overturned a legal precedent recognized and upheld for more than two decades, one with the potential to change admissions policies employed by colleges and universities nationwide.
Affirmative action in university admissions aims to create a more diverse student body that reflects the broader society and provides opportunities to historically underrepresented groups. By considering these factors, universities seek to mitigate the effects of discrimination and promote equal access to education. Affirmative action takes a holistic approach to evaluating applicants, considering a range of factors beyond just academic achievements, such as extracurricular activities, personal experiences, and challenges overcome. This approach acknowledges the challenges individuals from underrepresented groups face in their academic records.
The ruling means that colleges cannot consider race in admissions, BUT they are free to consider “an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life” in their essays. However, this may lead to formulaic and belittling narrative tropes, with many Black and minority applicants feeling that a story of struggle is necessary to show that they are “diverse.”
The University of Delaware sent out a nearly immediate response to the ruling. “This is an appropriate moment for us to reaffirm our commitment to attracting, welcoming and supporting diverse student populations on our campus. This is an appropriate moment for us to reaffirm our commitment to attracting, welcoming and supporting diverse student populations on our campus.”
Read the University of Delaware letter to the community following the U.S. Supreme Court decision on affirmative action in admissions.
Opponents of this policy state that it violates the principle of merit-based admissions. However, considering race as a factor when deciding on an applicant is not about filling quotes, but rather about understanding how different backgrounds lend to different types of opportunities.
Part of affirmative action is to identify students who would have thrived had they been placed in a zip code, for example, that had higher quality teachers, counselors, and academic experiences, and to admit them to the institution where they believe they will thrive when they have access to those resources. And let’s face it; we live in a society in which half of the population profiles people based on race on a daily basis.
There are privileges afforded to certain groups of people simply based on the color of their skin. This has been happening for generations and has lasting impacts on whole populations. Affirmative action was created to address historical inequalities and discrimination against minority groups and women in employment, education, and other social benefits, BUT THESE INEQUALITIES STILL EXIST.
Our country has changed, but in many ways, it has gone backward and continues to go backward.
Beyond admissions, there is a need to look at the makeup of university faculty, too.
A 2021 report found that among full-time professors, 80% were white, 4% were Black, 11% were Asian/Pacific Islander, 3% were Hispanic, and less than 1% were Native American (Source: National Center for Education Statistics). Researchers have found that racial, ethnic, and gender gaps between college students and faculty exist across academic disciplines, with minority faculty members being especially underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines.
Faculty diversity is key in college student completion and can significantly impact students’ sense of belonging, retention rates, and persistence. The Supreme Court has established the parameters within which universities can practice race-conscious affirmative action for college admissions.
The recent decision on affirmative action has rejected race-conscious admissions in higher education at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Despite the controversy, affirmative action remains a tool universities can use to promote diversity and ensure that those otherwise shut out of the American postsecondary system have a chance to earn a quality degree.