The Battle Between Fair College Admissions: The Supreme Court Case on Affirmative Action

By Talia Willscher

The United States college process has always been a difficult and tedious experience for teenagers hoping to continue their education. In the past, white students have been primarily favored at many universities, with many people of color not being given an opportunity to go to college because of financial needs or home circumstances. Since then, colleges have used affirmative action to allow more people of color to attend college. Affirmative action is the process in which colleges consider aspects of applicants’ backgrounds such as race, as a factor in their admission to a particular college. In the past few decades, affirmative action has been used to diversify what used to be mostly white schools to allow more people to attend college and get their diplomas. However, two new Supreme Court cases may outlaw affirmative action in the future, possibly changing the lives of hundreds of thousands of people trying to get into college. 

Affirmative action programs in colleges and universities were first established in 1978 by Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. Harvard University was one of the first models, with Justice Lewis Powell, an associate justice who served from 1972 to 1987, saying that “in evaluating applicants for admission, race could not be the determinative factor, but the university could use race as one of many factors, just as it uses other traits — special talents in music, science or athletics, and even the fact that the applicant’s parents attended the university.” Although the use of affirmative action has greatly benefited many people, the largely conservative Supreme Court is reviewing old precedents that were upheld by close court majorities. Harvard, a privately funded university, and the University of North Carolina, a government-funded university, are two of the universities under question in regard to affirmative action. With UNC, the Supreme Court is questioning whether its affirmative action program violates the 14th Amendment’s guarantee to equal protection of the law. With Harvard, although it is a private institution, unlike UNC, it is under the same federal laws of anti-discrimination due to the fact that it accepts federal money.

The first case is SFFA vs. UNC and the second is SFFA vs. Harvard. SFFA is a nonprofit organization called Students for Fair Admissions. They first brought the case against Harvard and UNC in 2014, alleging that the two schools intentionally discriminated against certain races (specifically, Asian applicants) when it came to admissions. 

The heart of the argument comes down to the question of what constitutes racial discrimination. Some believe that at its core affirmative action is racist due to the fact that it is picking apart candidates based on their race. Schools try to fill a certain quota of diversity, with some having a goal percentage of people of color that they want at their school. This feeds into more conservative ideologies that colleges are performative and just trying to look diverse. Others believe that affirmative action is necessary and that while colleges are evaluating candidates based on their grades and extracurricular activities, race also plays into the experiences they have had, thus having an impact on their life the same way one’s home state would. 

The current Supreme Court is quite conservative, with three of the justices previously disagreeing with affirmative action. They are now joined by three more Trump-appointed justices, indicating that the fight for the affirmative action program might be a losing battle. All in all, Justice Gorsuch, Justice Kavanaugh, Justice Barrett, Justice Thomas, Justice Roberts, and Justice Alito are against affirmative action.

If this affirmative action case is lost, it will no longer be constitutional for race to be a factor in the college admissions process. Schools that have already banned affirmative action have seen significant decreases in diversity, indicating what is to come if the Supreme Court rules against the cases. The public California schools have banned affirmative action since 1996, but still face difficulties when attempting to diversify their schools. The California schools have outreach programs for lower-income students, but these programs have fallen short. Without affirmative action, it will be increasingly hard to make a college degree accessible for underprivileged students. While some schools are already moving to put in support systems for people of color, other schools will be forced to reevaluate how to increase diversity at schools so that everyone can have an opportunity for higher education. 

Ultimately this decision will impact everyone in the United States. The Supreme Court ruling could have an impact on everything this country has worked so hard to achieve to give people of color equal rights to those of white people.