Shaking up the admissions game: Affirmative action under fire in the US

August 1, 2023

Jayde Robertson

The US Supreme Court has stirred up quite a controversy! (Shocker).

In the latest episode of “What the hell is the US doing”, they’ve backtracked on a long-standing policy (63 years old actually) that would ensure diversity and equity in their educational system. The powers that be have taken a swing at colleges and universities, saying they can no longer use race in their admission decisions. Brace yourselves for a wild ride of debates on diversity, equality, and opportunity in higher education.

Who would have thought that in 2023, the race debate would still be alive and kicking? We find ourselves in a world where being racially aware and conscious is essential, but the struggle against racism persists. It’s almost as if the more enlightened, or aware we become - the more likely disparity is to rear its unwelcome head. 

It's a complex and nuanced conversation that requires us to navigate the delicate balance between recognizing and appreciating our diverse backgrounds, while actively working to eradicate prejudice and discrimination. While we may have hoped for a society where race no longer dictated our experiences, it's evident that the journey toward true equality and understanding is far from over. 

So, let's delve into this ongoing debate, armed with awareness, consciousness, and an unwavering commitment to building a better, more inclusive future for all.

Wait, what happened?

The US Supreme Court has dropped the hammer on colleges and universities, snatching away their right to use race as a factor in admissions decisions. Talk about a plot twist! Researchers are warning that this move could put a major damper on efforts to boost the representation of Black, Hispanic, and other minority students at academic institutions. Not to mention, it might also throw a wrench into the diversity gears of fields like science. 

Now, not every institution in the good ol' US of A relies on race-conscious admissions to shape their student body. Some states, like California, Michigan, and Florida, have already given it the boot in public institutions. Meanwhile, the ones that are still embracing the need for diversity have been doing so under the protective umbrella of the 2003 Supreme Court case Grutter v. Bollinger. It basically said, "Hey, universities, it's constitutional to consider race alongside grades, test scores, and other factors to jazz up that campus diversity." That said - the recent June decision has deemed those institutions at the center of the case not compliant with the outlined limits on race-based admissions. Cue the plot twist music!

A leveled playing field - to some extent

Let's take a step back and look at why some universities adopted race-conscious admissions, also known as affirmative action, in the first place. It's all about addressing centuries of racism and exclusion in the US. We're talking about leveling the playing field for people from minority ethnic groups who face ongoing challenges in accessing academic opportunities. These issues continue to make it a steep climb for these individuals to secure admission to academic institutions.

But don't just take our word for it—let's dive into the research. A 2020 study of 19 public universities in states that banned race-conscious admissions gives us a glimpse of what lies ahead. Despite a rise in the percentages of students from minority ethnic groups attending high school in those states after the bans, these universities admitted a smaller proportion of Black, Hispanic, and Native American students. It's a head-scratcher, right?

Let's zoom in on the University of California (UC), Los Angeles, and UC Berkeley for a moment. Back in 1998, the first year California's ban was enforced, the number of admitted Black first-year students took a tumble by a whopping 43% and 66%, respectively. Talk about a major blow to diversity!

Trading diversity for controversy

Now, here's where the Supreme Court's decision comes into play. Brace yourselves, folks, because it's the elite institutions that are about to feel the heat. You know, the ones that have acceptance rates lower than your chances of winning the lottery. Stella Flores, an education researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, knows the score. She's studied the impact of state and federal policies on university access, and she warns us that removing affirmative action will hit these prestigious institutions hard. Not only do they turn away droves of applicants, but being a student can also cost an arm and a leg. “Affirmative action was the only tool that helped us bring in students that weren’t from wealthy families or wealthy institutions,” Flores says. “It certainly isn’t a cure-all, but if you remove it, you remove the last bridge to some form of opportunity for everyone.” 

Naturally, it’s a ripple effect

Let’s take a peek behind the curtain of the US Supreme Court's decision. Two universities found themselves in the crosshairs—Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill—thanks to the organization Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), led by none other than activist extraordinaire Edward Blum. Their bone of contention? Both institutions were accused of discrimination in their admissions process, specifically against certain applicants, including Asian Americans. Drama, drama, drama!

Let's dive into the courtroom showdown. Chief Justice John Roberts, serving up the words for the majority, argued that universities have it all wrong. According to him, they've made a grave mistake by considering an individual's identity not in terms of challenges overcome, skills honed, or lessons learned, but based on the color of their skin. Ouch! Sounds like a clash of ideologies and a fundamental disagreement on the touchstone of identity.

The final ruling, split 6–3 along ideological lines, unveils the court's rightward turn under the watch of former president Donald Trump, a Republican who handpicked three justices for the nine-person bench. It's a political tango that's leaving its mark on the hallowed halls of justice.

But what does this all mean?

Well, let's connect the dots. The battle between universities and the Supreme Court reveals a deep-rooted clash between the pursuit of diversity and the interpretation of the US constitutional history. It's a classic case of differing perspectives and ideologies locked in a fierce tug-of-war.

This ruling isn't just about students; it could affect the makeup of staff too. Researcher Julie Park points out that these elite institutions play a significant role in shaping the future professors of academia. The lack of diversity among tenure-track faculty is already a problem, with historically Black colleges and universities and Hispanic-serving institutions often left out of the equation. On top of that, without race-conscious admissions, the diversity of future scientists, especially in STEM fields, might take a hit.

The court's ruling casts a long shadow over the future of affirmative action and its role in shaping our academic landscape. It prompts us to question the delicate balance between promoting diversity and ensuring equal treatment under the law.

Is it a war against science? 

Without race-conscious admissions, future generations of scientists may be left lacking in diversity. It's a troubling thought, indeed!

Let's take a closer look at the current state of affairs. Black and Hispanic workers are already underrepresented in the world of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). We're talking a mere 9% of Black and a modest 8% of Hispanic individuals in the total STEM workforce in the United States. And get this, Black people make up around 14% of the US population, while Hispanic accounts for nearly 19%. Something just doesn't add up!

Diversity is more than just a buzzword—it's the secret sauce that drives innovation, creativity, and groundbreaking discoveries. We need scientists from all walks of life, bringing their unique perspectives and experiences to the table. After all, it's this mix of backgrounds and ideas that spark the kind of magic that propels us forward.

What’s the alternative? 

Institutions are scrambling to find new ways to jazz up their student populations and bring a much-needed dose of diversity to the table. Enter Timothy Welbeck, a civil-rights attorney, and scholar extraordinaire in the fields of law, race, and cultural studies. According to this wise individual, it's going to take some serious moolah and a deeper understanding of underrepresented groups to make it happen.

You see, reaching out to those who have been historically left out in the cold comes at a price. Universities will have to dig deep into their pockets and invest some serious dough. And let's not forget the importance of truly understanding how these underrepresented groups make their decisions—especially those who don't come from wealthy families.

But here's the kicker: there are no guarantees. Yup, you heard it right. Just because institutions try new methods doesn't mean they'll achieve that sought-after diverse student body. Take the University of California (UC) system, for example. They've been swinging for the fences for decades, attempting to replace race-conscious admissions with other approaches. And guess what? They've mostly missed the mark. 

So, what's a prestigious institution to do? Well, the experts have a few tricks up their sleeves. They suggest bidding farewell to legacy admissions, those fancy practices that give a leg up to students with alumni family members.  And while we're at it, let's toss standardized testing out the window too. After all, it's no secret that these tests tend to favor the white and wealthy crowd.  But hold on tight because change ain't always easy. These practices are deeply ingrained, and they won't go down without a fight. But - they’re also practices that deeply favor wealthy white students. It's a game of pushing boundaries, challenging the status quo, and embracing a new era of fairness and inclusivity. Remember- it’s not just about diversity, it’s about equity too.

What do we think? 

As education marketers, we may not hold the power to single-handedly change the entire system, but here’s the thing—we have a voice, and it's time to use it. When it comes to driving diversity and equity in enrollments, we can play a pivotal role in shaping the narrative and making a lasting impact.

It starts with embracing inclusive messaging, crafting messages that celebrate diversity, inclusivity, and equal opportunities for all. By amplifying student stories and showcasing a range of backgrounds, cultures, and experiences, we can inspire prospective students from underrepresented communities. Staying informed and continuously educating ourselves about current issues and best practices enables us to be at the forefront of change. 

Let's use our voices, ignite conversations, and be catalysts for a more diverse and equitable educational landscape—one enrollment at a time.

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