Supreme Court Strikes Down Race-Based Admissions at Colleges


The Supreme Court struck down on June 29 the use of racially discriminatory admissions policies at U.S. colleges.

The 6–3 decision ends the use of so-called affirmative action in higher education, a longtime goal of conservatives.

The ruling will be felt immediately as a million high school students begin applying for fall acceptance at the nation’s colleges and universities. Students may reportedly avoid stating their race or ethnicity in the Common App, which many use to apply to multiple schools at once.

“Our constitutional history does not tolerate that choice,” he wrote.

In a footnote, Roberts carved out an exception in the ruling for military academies.

This appears to mean that the court could in the future consider the use of affirmative action in admissions at military academies. 

Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, writing that the majority decision “rolls back decades of precedent and momentous progress.”

“It holds that race can no longer be used in a limited way in college admissions to achieve such critical benefits,” the justice wrote. 

“In so holding, the Court cements a superficial rule of colorblindness as a constitutional principle in an endemically segregated society where race has always mattered and continues to matter.”

The case is actually two separate appeals that were heard together on Oct. 31, 2022: Students for Fair Admissions Inc. (SFFA) v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, court file 20-1199, and SFFA v. University of North Carolina (UNC), court file 21-707. 

Roberts wrote the majority opinion in the UNC case, which was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, Samuel Alito, and Amy Coney Barrett. The court’s three liberal justices—Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ketanji Brown Jackson dissented. This means the vote was 6–3.

The justices’ votes in the Harvard case were the same except that Jackson didn’t participate in that decision after she recused herself because she has close ties to Harvard. Kagan didn’t recuse herself even though she had been dean of Harvard Law School from 2003 to 2009. The vote in this case was 6–2.

SFFA calls itself “a nonprofit membership group of more than 20,000 students, parents, and others, who believe that racial classifications and preferences in college admissions are unfair, unnecessary, and unconstitutional.”

Harvard and UNC are, respectively, the oldest private college and the oldest public college in the United States.

In the Harvard case, U.S. District Judge Allison Dale Burroughs, who was appointed by then-President Barack Obama, previously found after a 15-day nonjury trial for Harvard, ruling that its admission policy that was said to discriminate against Asian American applicants wasn’t motivated by “racial animus … or intentional discrimination” and was “narrowly tailored to achieve diversity and the academic benefits that flow from diversity.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit upheld the lower court’s decision, ruling against SFFA.

In the UNC case, U.S. District Judge Loretta Copeland Biggs, also an Obama appointee, previously held an eight-day nonjury trial to determine if UNC was complying with existing precedent.

The court approved the school’s admissions policy because it uses race “flexibly as a ‘plus’ factor” and only as “one among many factors.”

It found that UNC had no viable race-neutral alternatives to help it “achieve the educational benefits of diversity about as well as its current race-conscious policies and practices.”

The court stated that providing admissions preferences based on socioeconomic status instead of race wouldn’t work because “the majority of low-income students are white,” so the schools would just “be choosing more white students.”

Race should be used by UNC indefinitely because it’s “interwoven in every aspect of the lived experience,” according to the court.

Until the United States one day resolves its “struggle with racial inequality,” minority students will continue to be “less likely to be admitted in meaningful numbers on [race-neutral] criteria,” it stated.

SFFA went to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, but before it could rule on the case, the SFFA also sought review from the Supreme Court, which was granted.

In the majority opinion, Roberts wrote that the Harvard and UNC admissions programs “cannot be reconciled with the guarantees of the Equal Protection Clause.”

“Both programs lack sufficiently focused and measurable objectives warranting the use of race, unavoidably employ race in a negative manner, involve racial stereotyping, and lack meaningful endpoints,” he wrote. “We have never permitted admissions programs to work in that way, and we will not do so today.”

Years earlier, then-Justice Sandra Day O’Connor had predicted the demise of affirmative action.

In Grutter v. Bollinger, she wrote: “We expect that 25 years from now the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.”

Making race-conscious admissions decisions is “dangerous,” O’Connor wrote, calling it a “deviation from the norm of equal treatment.”

Such programs must “be limited in time,” she said, noting that “all governmental use of race must have a logical end point.”

While race can’t be used as a factor in admissions decisions, this doesn’t mean that college applicants have to refrain during the process from discussing race, the new opinion states.

“Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration or otherwise,” Roberts wrote.

“A benefit to a student who overcame racial discrimination, for example, must be tied to that student’s courage and determination. Or a benefit to a student whose heritage or culture motivated him or her to assume a leadership role or attain a particular goal must be tied to that student’s unique ability to contribute to the university.

“In other words, the student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual—not on the basis of race.”

Thomas—the nation’s second black Supreme Court justice after Thurgood Marshall, who left the court in 1991 and died in 1993—who has long pressed to end affirmative action, wrote a 58-page opinion concurring with the majority.

The new ruling “sees the universities’ admissions policies for what they are: rudderless, race-based preferences designed to ensure a particular racial mix in their entering classes.”

Jackson, the first black female justice on the Supreme Court, wrote in a separate, 29-page dissenting opinion in the UNC case that the majority opinion is “truly a tragedy for us all.”

“With let-them-eat-cake obliviousness, today, the majority pulls the ripcord and announces ‘colorblindness for all’ by legal fiat. But deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life,” Jackson wrote.

“And having so detached itself from this country’s actual past and present experiences, the Court has now been lured into interfering with the crucial work that UNC and other institutions of higher learning are doing to solve America’s real-world problems.”

Sotomayor and Kagan joined Jackson’s dissent.

Both schools stated that they were disappointed in the majority opinion.

“Carolina remains firmly committed to bringing together talented students with different perspectives and life experiences and continues to make an affordable, high-quality education accessible to the people of North Carolina and beyond,” UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said in a statement.

“While not the outcome we hoped for, we will carefully review the Supreme Court’s decision and take any steps necessary to comply with the law.”

Harvard stated that it continues to support diversity.

“We write today to reaffirm the fundamental principle that deep and transformative teaching, learning, and research depend upon a community comprising people of many backgrounds, perspectives, and lived experiences. That principle is as true and important today as it was yesterday,” the school said in a statement.

Three U.S. presidents, past and present, weighed in on the ruling.

President Joe Biden expressed dismay at the new majority decision, saying that “this is not a normal court.”

“I strongly disagree with the Court’s decision because affirmative action is so misunderstood,” he said. “Many people wrongly believe that affirmative action allows unqualified students to be admitted ahead of qualified students. This is not how college admissions work.”

Former President Donald Trump said that “this is a great day for America.”

“People with extraordinary ability and everything else necessary for success, including future greatness for our country, are finally being rewarded,” he said.

Former President Barack Obama lamented the ruling, saying affirmative action helped him and his wife.

“Like any policy, affirmative action wasn’t perfect. But it allowed generations of students like Michelle and me to prove we belonged,” he said.

“Now it’s up to all of us to give young people the opportunities they deserve — and help students everywhere benefit from new perspectives.”