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Admissions weighs potential impacts of Supreme Court decision on affirmative action

Last October, the U.S. Supreme Court heard two cases that threaten to end race-based affirmative action in college admissions. Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. President & Fellows of Harvard College and Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. University of North Carolina both argue that race cannot be used as a factor in admissions for private or public institutions of higher learning. 

The Supreme Court is expected to issue its decision in June, but the consensus among court-watchers is that the court will, to some degree, strike down race-conscious admissions practices. 

Under current law, colleges are allowed to consider race as one of many factors when choosing which students to admit. The Supreme Court allowed this in the ruling Fisher v. University of Texas because it deemed diversity in higher education a compelling government interest. 

The most significant blow to affirmative action would come if the court overturned the Fisher decision and found race-conscious admissions to be in violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits disparate treatment of citizens.  

“I think the most likely outcome is that the Supreme Court strikes down the legality of race-based, diversity-driven admissions in higher education,” said Professor and President Emeritus Steven Poskanzer, who specializes in law and higher education. 

Poskanzer cautioned that he could be wrong, as decisions can be unpredictable. It’s unclear exactly what it would mean for admissions at Carleton and in higher education across the country if affirmative action was struck down. 

Carleton uses a holistic admissions process, considering race among many factors when choosing who to admit to the college.

Dean of Admissions Art Rodriguez described the role race plays in admissions at Carleton: “Historically, we’ve had challenges with enrolling Black, Native American and Latino students. So as a result, when we’re considering students from those backgrounds, when they look like other students we’re admitting, their racial background might play a role in having that student be admitted to the college.” 

If the Supreme Court decides to strike down affirmative action, the college will no longer be able to consider those backgrounds. Rodriguez discussed what Carleton might do if that were the case, and emphasized that diversity will remain a priority for the college regardless of the decision by the Supreme Court

“There are different race-neutral strategies that we can take, [like] looking at socioeconomic diversity [and] highlighting first-generation students,” said Rodriguez. “Socioeconomic status doesn’t capture a student’s race or ethnicity, but we know because of income disparity in the United States, there tends to be a higher proportion of underrepresented students in our lower-income population — but we also know there are a significant of white students from low income families too… So if we were to use socioeconomic diversity as the consideration, we would capture some students, but we probably wouldn’t capture a similar result to what we have now using race as a factor. Unfortunately, looking at other institutions where the state has banned considering race in college admissions, they tend to see decreases in the number of underrepresented minority students.” 

One of those states is California, where race-conscious admissions in state colleges and universities was banned by ballot initiative in 1997. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Higher Education found that after affirmative action was struck down, underrepresented minorities “were generally admitted at lower rates than their majority counterparts.” The study also found that, in the event affirmative action is struck down, comprehensive review processes like the one Carleton plans to use “are insufficient substitutes for race-conscious admissions.” 

In the class of 2026, 60% of incoming students identified as white, while 40% identified as Black, Indigenous or a person of color. 

Another potential approach is increased reliance on organizations that bring underrepresented students to the forefront of the college admissions process. 

“We’re asking, ‘Are there community-based organizations that we might partner with in the future whose populations that they’re working with might represent some of that diversity?’” Rodriguez said. 

Rodriguez mentioned the Schuler Access Program, Posse and QuestBridge in particular. Although none of these programs are technically race-based, Rodriguez believes they can help achieve the diversity goals of the college. 

“We find diversity in those programs, but it’s not the focal point,” Rodriguez said. “Who they find in their program selection happens to be a larger percentage of underrepresented minority students.” 

Rodriguez cautioned that the number of BIPOC students would be liable to drop if the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action. But how much that number would drop, and what the college could do to mitigate it, remains unknown. 

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