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Affirmative Action in US College Admission Decisions

The political minutiae surrounding the use of race in college admissions has raised considerable attention concerning progress in access to higher education. While some critics argue that access to postsecondary education should adopt “colorblind” or race-neutral policies, for over 40 years, higher education institutions have considered race among many attributes in the general application of college hopefuls. The decision to utilize race in admission is primarily due to critical supreme court decisions that have changed the trajectory of designing a holistic, diverse cohort. In Grutter v. Bollinger 2003, Justice O'Connor retorted that “the educational benefits that diversity is designed to produce are substantial. Numerous studies show that student body diversity promotes learning outcomes, prepares students for an increasingly diverse workforce and society, and prepares them as professionals”. One could also argue that a race-conscious approach attempts to correct past discriminatory outcomes due to de jure segregation, redlining, school-to-prison pipelines, and other forms of social stratification in this country. With strategic enrollment management, these admission processes are designed to imbue the equity outcomes they achieve.

In contemporary society, we refer to the use of race in admission as a proponent of affirmative action, The historical lineage of pursuing equal opportunity in America. Although, the underpinning of deeply rooted turmoil still permeates the lives of students, their families, and the more extensive educational system today. The pursuit for equality quickly modernized into many approaches to pursue equity opportunities for underrepresented populations. As growing tensions have continued to fester among race-conscious versus race-neutral admission practices, we now turn our attention to what could be the most significant decision to date, with even broader implications; The Supreme Court hearing of Harvard vs. SFFA (Students for Free and Fair Elections) and UNC at Chapel Hill vs. SFFA.

Amy Howe reported that SFFA describes its mission to "restore colorblind principles to our nation's schools, colleges, and universities." Moreover, as they assert, discriminatory practices have become a pattern at Harvard, supposedly alienating Jewish and Asian-American applicants. Their rallying cry seems to be having the former Grutter decision overruled, describing the 2003 ruling as a "grievously wrong" decision that now sustains admissions programs that intentionally discriminate against historically oppressed minorities. Howe also noted Harvard’s rebuttal claiming that SFFA allegations rely on a thoroughly distorted presentation of the facts in the case. Harvard augments their statement by describing its admission practices as taking race into account in a "flexible and nonmechanical way for the benefit of highly qualified candidates."

A question for the anti-affirmative action admissions is quite succinct: How does a colorblind admissions process correct historical discrimination and seek diverse applicants without disclosing race and ethnicity? Amy Stuart Wells and colleagues conducted a study, published in the book In Search of Brown, on the effects of racially mixed schools. A section in the study highlighted the misguided purpose of implementing colorblind ideology as a goal in the late 1970s in response to the earlier 1970s school districts' racial tension and rioting. Wells quotes, “not talking about race seemed the best way to keep the peace and to keep a lid on things." Colorblind tactics attempt an erasure of identities to avoid acknowledging the colorful fabric of historical reckonings. It also admonishes contextual experiences and students’ overall cultural capital, setting a precedent for faulty equality.

Nevertheless, myopia asserted in race-neutral vs. race-conscious arguments highlights the disproportional benefit of the historically resourced students. They have had access to an admission industrial complex since beginning grade school. The other case of contention is SFFA vs. UNC at Chapel Hill. The public university in North Carolina receives over 40,000 undergraduate applications a year with a 25% acceptance rate, according to the National Center of Education Statistics (NCES). UNC at Chapel Hill won a lawsuit that challenged the institution's consideration of race in admissions, as noted by Nell Gluckman for The Chronicle. They were initially sued in 2014 by SFFA, which claimed UNC’s admissions process violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The university statement contends that "we evaluate each student deliberately and thoughtfully…appreciating individual strengths, talent, and contributions to a vibrant campus community where students from all backgrounds can excel and thrive”. SFFA is now appealing that decision.

The Harvard and UNC at Chapel Hill case reinforce that while making considerable progress, underrepresented students are still not matriculating at the rates of their counterparts. Moreover, the constant tug-of-war among partisan lines draws no synergy or shared approach to improving admission processes overall. Judge Loretta C. Biggs, who issued the ruling in favor of UNC, also said something simplistic yet deeply profound; "The university is far from creating the diverse environment described in its mission statement," as Nell Gluckman wrote. This proclamation is hearkening universities to remain steadfast in their pursuit of improving race relations on their campuses and chipping away at chilling cultural climates that ostracize students of color. Still, the SFFA seems determined to have past decisions appealed and overruled.

Candidly speaking, it seems the SFFA is attempting to exploit the use of the equal protection clause (which was enacted due to vestiges of discrimination against African Americans, Women, and those with disability in this country) by claiming discrimination against the white majority population, that were the primary beneficiaries of discrimination in the past. With affirmative action policies, there is a progression toward removing the relics of a dual system, which implies little interest convergence for the white majority, resulting in their resistance at all costs.

The Supreme Court will make a decision on both cases later this year, hearing oral arguments on October 31, 2022. The stakes are incredibly high as the former Grutter case, among others, has paved the way over the last 40 years in college admission processes. Should the Supreme Court overrule the previous decisions in favor of affirmative action, we could see a robust decline in college applications, acceptances, and yield rates for underrepresented students in highly selective college admissions, further perpetuating social stratification in achievement gaps on a national scale. Significant progress has been made to encourage high-ability students from poverty-stricken circumstances to apply to highly selective institutions, namely due to affirmative action policies, recruitment strategies, and outreach from institutions, coupled with significant efforts to demystify application processes, as noted by William Bowen and colleagues in the book Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education. We cannot afford the regressive approach that will impede decades of progression as a country.

Jade M. Felder

Twitter: @FelderOfficial #FelderOfficial


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