Supreme Court once again considers race-conscious admissions at U.S. colleges and universities

On Monday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two cases brought by the anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), which call for the Court to end race-conscious admissions at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, according to The Washington Post.

SFFA argued that race-based affirmative action discriminates against white and Asian American applicants. Lawyers representing Harvard and UNC denied the claim and said they practice holistic admissions, considering applicants’ race among a variety of other factors, including grades, standardized test scores, and extracurricular activities. However, they said that without affirmative action, enrollment of students from historically underrepresented communities at both universities would decline.

Although the Court previously upheld the legality of affirmative action in college admissions in 2003 and 2016, some legal pundits predict that with a right-wing majority, the Court may end the 40-year legal precedent when a decision comes down in spring 2023.

This summer, Georgetown University filed an amicus brief with 56 Catholic colleges and universities urging the Supreme Court to uphold the legality of race-conscious admissions. “Our Jesuit tradition of education,” Georgetown President John J. DeGioia said, “recognizes the value of diversity as necessary to education and in our work to shape future leaders who will make invaluable contributions to our national and global communities.”

Can race-neutral admissions advance diversity goals?

Higher education leaders tell the Los Angeles Times that no matter what the Court decides, institutions need to assure potential college applicants that they will pursue whatever legal means exist to create diverse campus communities in which students can thrive. Those efforts include ensuring admissions officers will take into account the full context of applicants’ academic experiences and providing more financial support for low-income students.

Still, some experts worry that an end to race-conscious admissions will lower rates of undergraduate enrollment among underrepresented students and stall efforts to diversify pipelines to certain industries, such as STEM fields and the medical profession, where barriers to entry for historically marginalized communities persist.

Race-conscious admissions is “not only appropriate but essential” both to medical schools and the health care as a whole, writes Lee Jones, dean of medical education at Georgetown University School of Medicine and chair-elect of the board of directors for the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), on Stat Plus, a site focusing on trends in medical fields. “A tragic error—eliminating race as a factor in admissions—by the Supreme Court would be compounded in numerous ways: in who gets the chance to attend medical school, in the richness of that education, in the quality of care in the country’s hardest pressed communities, and in the health of our families and neighbors.”

Related: What happens when states ban affirmative action? >

There are not yet many alternatives to affirmative action that foster diversity, says The Hechinger Report in its survey of research on efforts to increase diversity in college admissions. Looking at Texas and California, two states in which affirmative action was banned in 1996, researchers have found that race-neutral policies implemented after the ban have not produced more equitable access to the Texas’ flagship institutions. Nor have they been adequate in keeping up with California’s demographic changes, officials at the University of California explain.

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