Supreme Court Affirmative Action Decision: Analysis and Resources
By Meghan Volcy
In June of this year, the Supreme Court struck down race-based affirmative action practices in higher education. With colleges and universities now in the thick of the “admissions season,” and many decisions still pending, we want to share information and resources on the potential impact it will have in the Commonwealth and the nation. Our latest policy analysis also provides information on what those who work in education–from counselors and educators to administrators and policymakers–can do to remain vigilant and engaged in pursuit of equitable education and outcomes for all students.
Summary of the Decision
There are many resources available to help unpack the history of affirmative action in the United States, including the following:
- CNN’s coverage of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling and its implications
- NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s explanation of the decision and its impact on affirmative action
- Britannica’s article on the definition and history of affirmative action, along with key Supreme Court cases on the topic
- History.com’s overview of affirmative action in college admissions
In the two companion cases that were considered by the Supreme Court this summer, justices were divided, with the votes landing at 6-3 in the case of Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina, and 6-2 in the case of Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard (Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson recused herself from the Harvard case, as she served on the Harvard Board of Overseers during the same time as the admissions period being considered in the case). The breakdown of votes in these cases was divided along ideological lines, as follows:
Against Race-Based Affirmative Action
In Favor of Race-Based Affirmative Action
Chief Justice John Roberts*
Justice Clarence Thomas
Justice Samuel Alito
Justice Neil Gorsuch
Justice Brett Kavanaugh
Justice Amy Coney Barrett
Justice Sonia Sotomayor**
Justice Elena Kagan
Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson** (in the UNC case only)
*provided majority opinion
**provided dissenting opinion
In the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the race-based admission guidelines of Harvard and UNC "cannot be reconciled with the guarantees of the Equal Protection Clause" and argued that college admissions should evaluate prospective students as individuals, not on the basis of race. However, he noted that students can submit a personal statement that shares their experiences of how race has shaped their lives, which admissions counselors can consider as part of a holistic review of students’ application packages. Justice Roberts’ opinion also notably exempted military academies from the ruling, citing “the potentially distinct interests” that they present.
In her dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that this ruling represents a rollback of “decades of precedent and momentous progress.” She argued that admissions processes that include affirmative action are lawful under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, which serves to “enshrine a guarantee of racial equality,” and that this ruling actually “subverts the constitutional guarantee of equal protection by further entrenching racial inequality in education.” She also argued that the guarantee of racial equality in our society through the Equal Protection Clause needs to be enforced through race-conscious policies, since society “is not, and has never been, colorblind.”
Potential Impacts in Massachusetts and the Nation
This anti-affirmative action decision is not the first of its kind, with affirmative action policies at public institutions of higher education having already been banned in the states of Arizona, California, Florida, Idaho, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Washington. While the Supreme Court decision will have a substantially broader reach–extending to all public and private institutions of higher education nationwide–there are lessons to be learned about its impact from the experiences of states that previously banned affirmative action. The following sections summarize some of the likely effects of the decision. More data on the ruling’s impact is expected to emerge in 2024, given the already-completed Early Decision cycles at some schools and additional college application deadlines to come at the end of the school year.
Across the country, researchers have looked into the effects of affirmative action bans prior to the Supreme Court ruling. For instance, after California’s Proposition 209 banned affirmative action practices in the University of California system 25 years ago, Black and Latino enrollment sharply declined. Another report published in 2020 found that “the total enrollment of Black and Hispanic students at the University of California declined by about 800 students per year after 1998.” The report also found that underrepresented applicants became less likely to earn STEM and graduate degrees, and underrepresented applicants with lower test scores became less likely to attain an undergraduate degree (contributing to a decline in applicants’ early-career wages). The report further notes that Proposition 209 discouraged thousands of academically competitive underrepresented students from applying to research institutions in the first place. Outside of California, the Urban Institute reported on similarly stark enrollment declines among students of color in other states that banned affirmative action, including Michigan and Washington.
Looking at the likely future impacts of the end of race-based affirmative action, one analysis predicts a nationwide drop of about 10% in Black and Hispanic enrollment in the coming years, while previous court rulings found that eliminating race as a factor in admissions could significantly reduce Black and Hispanic representation in higher education. The Washington Post, meanwhile, highlighted the stories of two high school students to explore how students have reacted to the Supreme Court ruling and adjusted their lives and post-secondary plans.
With 114 colleges and universities across the state, and students from hundreds of school districts contemplating their post-secondary future, Massachusetts is likely to face significant effects from the Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action. Selective institutions of higher education within the state–including Amherst College, Boston College, Boston University, Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northeastern University, the Olin College of Engineering, Tufts University, Wellesley College, and Williams College - are likely to be particularly impacted. Several Massachusetts colleges and universities have also come out with their own research, predictions, and statements regarding the future diversity of their campuses and classrooms. For instance, Wellesley College, where “just over half of Wellesley students on campus in the fall of 2021 identified as people of color,” predicted that the ruling will affect the experience of “living and learning on a residential campus” as students know it. This includes impacts on day-to-day engagements and interactions “with people from all different lived experiences and walks of life,” not only in the classroom, but in “the residential halls [and] the dining halls.”
Massachusetts leaders have put out a number of public resources since the Supreme Court ruling. Immediately following the decision, the Healey-Driscoll administration and more than 100 other elected officials, public and private colleges, and advocacy organizations throughout the state issued a joint statement regarding the ruling, affirming their “commitment to progress and continued representation in education.” They also announced the creation of an advisory council to help the Healey administration "keep Massachusetts welcoming and inclusive of all students.” More recently, Governor Healey and Attorney General Andrea Campbell issued guidance for colleges admitting new students as they seek to ensure compliance with the Court's ruling while still advancing diversity efforts.
Various elected officials from across Massachusetts have publicly rebuked the ruling as well. Numerous colleges and universities have put out statements and expressed their commitment to preserving diversity in higher education. Other admissions policies–particularly legacy admissions, which benefits the children of alumni–have come under increasing scrutiny, with state legislation proposed that would end the practice and a legal challenge seeking to end its use at Harvard University.
The list below provides additional resources to support education leaders, practitioners, and students in navigating admissions processes in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision:
- The Biden administration issued guidance and resources to assist colleges and universities in lawfully pursuing diversity
- Law firm McGuireWoods released an overview of the case and guidance on how to develop and maintain a diverse student body
- The PA Education Association shared resources on how to continue supporting programs in promoting equity, diversity, and inclusion through the admissions process
- The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation released resources for educational institutions and nonprofits to prepare and respond effectively to the changes brought about by the decision
- The Education Trust produced a series on affirmative action, including resources such as infographics, research briefs, and videos, and specific thoughts on not overcorrecting language and behaviors in the wake of the court’s ruling
- NBC News highlights four things students should know in response to the court ruling
The Supreme Court’s decision to end race-based affirmative action highlights the ideological divides that persist related to this contentious issue. The decision is likely to have a substantial impact on students, both nationally and in Massachusetts, with consequences for diversity and educational access. As the debate over affirmative action continues, it remains a critical issue in the pursuit of a more equitable society. We must continue to examine the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision, share resources, and advance strategies for promoting and growing diverse student bodies in higher education.