Affirmative action ruling: Will elite US universities now admit more Asians?

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The US Supreme Court's landmark decision to gut affirmative action has made it unlawful for colleges and unis to take race into consideration as a specific factor in admissions. Source: AFP

Some important decisions on affirmative action made by the highest court in the US, called the Supreme Court, will have a big impact on anyone planning to study in the US soon.

On June 28, the Supreme Court ruled that the way Harvard University and the University of North Carolina consider race when deciding which students to admit is against the law.

For a long time, US universities could consider an applicant’s race when deciding who gets in or who gets rejected.

But now, with more conservative judges in the majority, this has been ruled to be unfair according to the US Constitution.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said that the way Harvard and UNC’s admitted students did no adhere to the equal protection clause because:

  • they don’t have clear goals
  • they use race in a negative way
  • they rely on stereotypes; and
  • they don’t have a clear endpoint.

What this means is US universities now cannot consider race when admitting anyone — the biggest blow to the US’s affirmative action policies in decades.

The history behind these affirmative action rulings

Affirmative action refers to government policies that try to make things fair for people who have been treated unfairly before.

It aims to help groups who haven’t had as many opportunities, like women or the Black community for the effects of decades of slavery.

This means they might get special treatment, like getting into college or getting a job, to make things more equal. By fixing past injustices, it aims to make current society more diverse and fair.

What started in the US around the 1960s was then questioned in 2014 — when students for Fair Admissions, spearheaded by conservative legal strategist and former stockbroker Edward Blum, filed two lawsuits.

The immediate question in the two lawsuits before the Supreme Court — Students for Fair Admissions v President & Fellows of Harvard College and Students For Fair Admissions v University of North Carolina — was whether the Supreme Court should overrule Grutter v. Bollinger, the 2003 case that held that race may play a limited role in college admissions.

Any decision by the Supreme Court was going to be fundamental since it is the highest court in the country. 

While the recent ruling does not explicitly overrule SCOTUS’s previous decisions permitting affirmative action, it will almost certainly have the same effect as a total ban, according to Vox’s Ian Millhiser, the author of two books on the Supreme Court.

President Joe Biden mentioned in a news conference denouncing the decision that he would call upon the Education Department to lay out new methods for higher education institutions to remain diverse, suggesting a model that takes into account adversity and socioeconomic status.

How do US colleges and universities practise affirmative action?

Today, not all schools consider race in their admission process. Nine states — including California and Washington — have outright bans on this.

The institutions that do consider race, usually argue that it is part of a holistic review of a candidate’s application that evaluates the following:

  • your grades and how well you do at school
  • whether you can be a leader
  • achievements in sports or the arts
  • community service
  • letter of recommendations from teachers
  • other factors 
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The admission process at Harvard involves a comprehensive, whole-person review of each applicant requiring months to complete. Source: AFP

Does Harvard look at race in their admission process?

Harvard uses factors that might “tip” applicants into Harvard’s group of admitted students. They include: 

  • grades that are outstanding and unusual intellectual ability 
  • unusually appealing personal qualities
  • outstanding potential for leadership
  • creative ability 
  • athletic ability
  • legacy status
  • geographic, ethnic
  • economic factors

SFFA claims that Harvard deliberately discriminates against Asian American applicants because of their race and considers race in ways that violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

They argued that Harvard penalises Asian students when it comes to the uni’s “personal rating,” which measures qualities like integrity, courage, and empathy. 

“Although these personalities have nothing to do with race, Asian Americans receive by far the worst scores,” the petitioners wrote.

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The Supreme Court ruling ends race-conscious admissions at universities across the country, tossing out decades of precedent in American life and delivering a huge blow to the cause of greater student diversity on campuses. Source: AFP

How will the ruling on affirmative action affect international students?

1. The campus will look different

What will happen to the student body at the selective colleges and unis that practice race-conscious admissions?

With nine states banning this form of affirmative action, we have an idea of what could happen.

When Michigan banned race-conscious admissions in 2006, the number of Blacks joining undergraduate programmes at Ann Arbor, the state’s flagship campus, dropped to 4% in 2021 from 7% in 2006.

A similar dip happened at the University of California’s most selective schools after Proposition 209 in 1996 banned race-conscious admissions.

That year, Black students at the University of California, Los Angeles, made up 7% of the student body. Two years later, the percentage of Black students fell to 3.43%.

For Harvard, they would have already admitted most of the students who matriculate this fall. The ruling doesn’t affect them or those still finalising their choices.

But data from the US Department of Education in 2021 showed that campuses at elite institutions would become whiter and more Asian with less Black and Latino. 

Removing affirmative action policies will reduce diversity on campus. 

The number of Black and Latino students at medical schools, law schools, and other professional degree programmes is expected to drop. Source: AFP

2. It affects not only undergraduates.

At least in the immediate future, the Supreme Court’s ruling is expected to lower the number of Black and Latino students at medical schools, law schools and other professional degree programmes.

In an amicus brief, groups including the Association of American Medical Colleges and the American Medical Association said that “states that have banned race-conscious admissions have seen the number of minority medical-school students drop by roughly 37%,” reducing the pipeline of doctors from those groups.” 

Nationally, about 5.7% of doctors are Black and 6.8% identify as Hispanic.

An amicus brief is written by individuals or groups that are not directly involved in a legal case but have expertise or insight that helps a court to make its decision. 

In the US, applicants who are admitted to medical schools are mostly from richer households.

The American Bar Association (ABA) has also expressed concern that affirmative action ensures a more racially diverse profession and judiciary, something which the ABA said was essential to the legitimacy of the legal system.

Another study found that the total damage was much larger and long-lasting

The ban cascaded down through California’s public higher education system, altering admissions at less-exclusive institutions and knocking some students out of the system altogether.

3. Black colleges could see a surge in applications

After George Floyd’s death in 2020, Black students flocked to historically black colleges and unis (HBCU) in search of support and a sense of belonging

The effect of the Supreme Court could be similar, according to David A. Thomas, the president of Morehouse College, a selective HBCU in Atlanta.

“College-ready Black students and their families will say, ‘We don’t want to go to places where we’re not wanted,'” he said in an interview with New York Times.

“And they will look for alternatives.”

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Some unis may not require SAT and ACT scores for admissions, which is one way to go about the affirmative action ruling by the Supreme Court. Source: AFP

4. There are many alternatives apart from affirmative action policies

Higher education institutions may not require SAT and ACT scores for admission.

This was widely adopted during the pandemic and it would likely benefit Black and Hispanic students with lower test scores but strong high school grades.

What’s more, while the Supreme Court has barred the direct consideration of race, colleges can still legally consider other factors that increase racial and ethnic diversity. 

Texas, for example, enacted a well-known “Top 10 Percent Plan” in 1997 that guarantees the top 10th of every high school’s graduating class admission to the University of Texas.

Since some Texas school districts had very high concentrations of Black and Hispanic students, this increased access to selective universities like UT Austin.

Colleges and uni can also give preference to low-income students. 

Thanks to centuries of structural racism, Black and Hispanic households are poorer than their white counterparts. Admitting them based on their lower income status would increase racial diversity without formally considering race. 

Asian students from lower-income countries such as India, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Nepal, for example, could benefit from this.

This is the ideal outcome proposed by Richard Kahlenberg, a scholar who served as an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the SFFA v Harvard case.

Kahlenberg notes that class-based preferences are more popular among the general public than policies focused on race.

He believes that wealthy Black and Hispanic students, who make up a significant portion of students at universities like Harvard, would be replaced by more economically needy students of colour.

“I’ve long argued a conservative decision on race will yield a liberal public policy result,” Kahlenberg told Vox.