The Future of Affirmative Action in College Admissions

By the end of June, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule in two cases that will determine whether colleges and universities can consider race in making admissions decisions. The two cases—Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina and Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard University—were argued in October and based on the justices’ questioning, some experts believe that the court may side with the plaintiffs, overturning the use of affirmative action in college admissions decisions.

Alexandria Walton Radford, senior director of AIR’s Center for Applied Research in Postsecondary Education, is an expert in college admissions. She has written or co-written two books on the topic: No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admissions and Campus Life (Princeton University Press) and Top Student, Top School? How Social Class Shapes Where Valedictorians Go to College (University of Chicago Press).

She answered a few questions about the impending decision.

Q. Based on the arguments, it appears there is a risk that the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn the use of affirmative action in college admissions. What are your concerns if that happens?

Radford: I'm concerned because racially and ethnically diverse student bodies on college campuses are critical to America’s future, and the court pulling away from affirmative action is likely to reduce racial and ethnic diversity. Research suggests that such diversity boosts students’ cognitive and social growth, enriching the educational experiences of all students and preparing them to be good citizens in an increasingly diverse world and economy.

There are still stark differences by race in who goes to college, the resources of the colleges that individuals attend, and who ends up with a college degree. Affirmative action has helped colleges create more racially and ethnically diverse campuses in the face of centuries of systemic racism, which continues to produce inequitable outcomes by race and ethnicity in K-12 education, as well as in family educational attainment, earnings, and wealth.

Affirmative action is an effort to even the playing field and provide opportunities given systemic inequities, but we need to get more serious about addressing the root causes.

It's important to understand that who ultimately shows up at a college campus is not just determined by an admissions officer’s decision. It’s affected by a variety of factors, including the funding and quality of K-12 public schools, the college guidance students receive, and more. What determines who ends up at specific colleges is something that starts at birth and is informed by generations of inequity.

Affirmative action is an effort to even the playing field and provide opportunities given systemic inequities, but we need to get more serious about addressing the root causes. This is true regardless of what the Supreme Court decides, but it'll be even more important if affirmative action is no longer a tool that can be used.

Q. These cases raise the point that we really don’t know much about the admissions process and how admissions decisions are made. Does that affect how people see affirmative action?

Radford: It's true that admissions decisions do not always feel transparent. Media always seems to pick up on stories, particularly in affluent areas, where a seemingly stellar student gets rejected by numerous prominent institutions. Everyone wants a straight-forward explanation. Part of that explanation is that there are many students applying for a limited number of seats—the applicant pool for selective institutions is national and even international, so the competition is fierce.

Some people are quick to jump to the conclusion that affirmative action is the reason a top student didn't get in, but there are many factors that go into admissions decisions beyond academic records. For instance, colleges and universities may have preferences for applicants who are athletes, those whose families are willing to make major donations, or those whose parent or relative attended the same institution (i.e., “legacies”). We’ve seen headlines about cases like this in recent years.

Q. If the court overturns affirmative action, what strategies can colleges and universities use to ensure they have diverse student bodies?

Radford: Outreach is the main strategy that institutions use. When the University of California, Los Angeles saw the racial and ethnic diversity of its student body drop after Proposition 209 banned affirmative action, the school increased its outreach. It now dedicates as much as $2 million a year to recruiting diverse students and urging them to accept admissions offers. Other universities are making significant investments as well.

Universities will also partner with nonprofit organizations to identify cohorts of promising students from underrepresented communities while they're in high school and work with them on the way into college and then often through college. The Posse Foundation is an example of one such program.

I want to underscore that the root causes affecting who is in the college pipeline are really entrenched and challenging to overcome.

Another strategy is moving away from requiring standardized test scores and looking at students more holistically. For instance, University of California schools are no longer considering SAT/ACT scores. Under their Statewide Guarantee program, they are taking a closer look at the whole student and all that they bring to bear in terms of their experiences and accomplishments. California also has a program that prioritizes admission for students who are in the top 9 percent of their high school class and meet minimum state eligibility requirements.

But I want to underscore that the root causes affecting who is in the college pipeline are really entrenched and challenging to overcome. Outreach, college preparation programs, and more holistic admissions policies can help, but these measures alone are not going to create the racially and ethnically diverse student bodies that our campuses are striving for and need.

Q. What is the best way for people to learn more about these cases?

Radford: I think it is helpful to understand how dismantling affirmative action will have a broader impact on our society. Nearly 100 groups filed “friend of the court” briefs on the current cases. You’ll see a range of entities, including business and industry, the military, and others, engaging in the discussion. The Association of American Medical Colleges and the American Bar Association, for example, pointed to how racial and ethnic diversity in higher education is critical to better health outcomes for patients and a more just legal system. SCOTUSblog, which covers the Supreme Court, has a summary of the briefs, sorted by topic. It provides a valuable look at how this ruling may affect much more than just higher education.