US Supreme Court ravages Affirmative Action in college admissions

What should students do now?
A Controversial Decision by the Supreme Court
On June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) handed down its decision in Students for Fair Admissions, Inc (SFFA) v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, and SFFA v. the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC).

In the Harvard case, given the recusal of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the vote was 6-2; in the UNC case, the vote was 6-3.

The Court held that the admissions systems used by Harvard and the UNC, two of the oldest institutions of higher learning in the United States, are unlawful as such systems violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution; furthermore, such systems do not comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, 1964, and that Title VI is read to “prohibit recipients of federal funds from doing whatever the Equal Protection Clause prohibits.”

Note that it was all the way back in 1978 when SCOTUS first allowed educational institutions’ practice of race-conscious admissions; so, in a flash, the highest Court in the Land of the Free flipped on its head more than four decades of precedent and outlawed the use of race as a factor in college admissions.

Who will be Affected and When?
The impact and reach of the Supreme Court's rulings are broad and immediate.

In addressing the question of who? To varying degrees, numerous participants in the US college admissions process will be affected. These include colleges, universities, and various groups of college-bound students — Asian, White, Black, Hispanic, and American Indians.

Jn terms of when? The repercussions of the Supreme Court’s verdict are already being felt by selective institutions across America, including Ivy League schools and other highly competitive institutions like Stanford, MIT, and the University of Chicago.

Along with Harvard and UNC, which have been jointly put into a headlock by SCOTUS, many other universities and colleges are frantically reviewing and reshuffling their admissions practices.

And know this — not only does the SCOTUS decision have consequences for thousands of college applicants, but different student groups will be affected differently.

In this article, with regard to each student group — Asian, White, Black, Hispanic, and American Indians — ivyO will pinpoint the implications of the rulings and set out our recommended strategies, which will help college applicants make informed decisions, take appropriate actions, avoid pitfalls, and even snatch opportunities from the jaws of adversity.

In any event, given the Court’s orders and with so much scrutiny by various stakeholders, it’s a safe assumption that colleges will at least try to look as if they comply with the new regime.

As such, ivyO believes that for the next admissions cycle or two, both Asian and White students will see a mild uptick in their quest for seats at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, and other elite institutions.

In particular, Asian students take note — by all means, seize this small window of opportunity if you can. But before it’s too late, just pause and reflect. Ask yourself: do I have the right application strategies? Are my strategies being properly executed? These are important questions; for starters, they could save you from committing the most common error made by Asian students — getting pigeonholed by admissions officers at your desired institutions as yet another stereotypical applicant and being placed into the “Deny” pile.

If you need help, get help fast. Feel free to reach out to ivyO.
Before we dive into what the SCOTUS decision means for each group of students, and what they should do now, let’s respond to a fundamental question — what is Affirmative Action in the first place? It’s understandable that some international families from outside the US may not be entirely familiar with it. Let ivyO give you a quick rundown.

Affirmative Action — a Brief Outline
Merriam-Webster defines affirmative action as “the use of policies, legislation, programs, and procedures to improve the educational or employment opportunities of members of certain demographic groups (such as minority groups, women, and older people) as a remedy to the effects of longstanding discrimination against such groups.”

In the context of US college admissions, affirmative action is the practice of higher learning institutions taking into consideration the applicants' race in deciding which students to admit. In its purest form, affirmative action is intended to promote diversity and empower disenfranchised and underprivileged groups.

The term “affirmative action” was coined in 1961, when President John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10925. It required Federal contractors to "take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin."

Notwithstanding the assassination of JFK in Dallas on November 22, 1963, his proposed legislation led to President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Bill into law on July 2, 1964. The Civil Rights Act sought to end discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin in the US. It banned segregation in public schools, as well as other public facilities like libraries and swimming pools; moreover, it empowered federal agencies to enforce the law against racial discrimination in voting, public places and employment.

On December 11, 1964, Martin Luther King Jr delivered his Nobel Lecture in the Auditorium of the University of Oslo, Norway. He passionately talked about the Civil Rights Act 1964 and declared that “This bill, which was first recommended and promoted by President Kennedy, was passed because of the overwhelming support and perseverance of millions of Americans… It came as a bright interlude in the long and sometimes turbulent struggle for civil rights: the beginning of a second emancipation proclamation providing a comprehensive legal basis for equality of opportunity.”

What a legend! Who wouldn’t be inspired by that?! MLK continued his work as a leader in the African American civil rights movement until his tragic assassination on April 4, 1968. Anyway, as from the following year, many prestigious US colleges and universities began to voluntarily implement admissions policies that significantly lifted the intake of underrepresented applicants, particularly Black students.

Fun fact — MLK’s above quote re “a second emancipation” is widely misattributed on the internet to his Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance speech, which was also delivered at the same university, but a day earlier, on December 10, 1964.

College Admissions Practices Rocked to the Core? Or would the Changes be a case of Form over Substance?
In the aftermath of the SCOTUS’s highly controversial decision, various observers have asserted that the new rulings herald a tectonic shift in the college and university admissions landscape. And that those institutions will overhaul their admissions practices by making significant and profound changes; here at ivyO, we think perhaps not.

Sure, elite US institutions of higher learning will do what’s necessary to project an image of compliance with the SCOTUS’s rulings; however, it is our contention that any adjustments to their admissions practices may be a case of form over substance. It’s a safe bet that those schools will explore, extend and exhaust all possible avenues in an all-out effort to protect and preserve their institutional needs, including diversity and whatever else that truly matters to them.

Now, we don’t need to be Nostradamus to know what’s coming; many top schools have already played their cards.

Shortly after the SCOTUS decision, various prestigious colleges and universities issued statements that run along similar lines — that they all declare compliance with the new rules, but that they are not wavering in their commitment to protecting diversity on their campuses, etc.

A quick read of the statements below will frame the picture for you:

For instance, consider the statement from the University of Pennsylvania, “In these first hours following the release of these rulings, we have two messages. First, we are studying the Court’s opinion to ensure that we admit students in compliance with the law. Second, we remain firm in our belief that our academic community is at its best when it is diverse across many dimensions… This decision will require changes in our admissions practices. But our values and beliefs will not change.”
Similarly, on the day the Court delivered its decision, Harvard released a statement reaffirming that “For almost a decade, Harvard has vigorously defended an admissions system that, as two federal courts ruled, fully complied with longstanding precedent. In the weeks and months ahead, drawing on the talent and expertise of our Harvard community, we will determine how to preserve, consistent with the Court’s new precedent, our essential values.”

As to be expected, Princeton’s statement followed kindred lines, acknowledging that “While today’s decision will make our work more difficult, we will work vigorously to preserve — and, indeed, grow — the diversity of our community while fully respecting the law as announced today.”

Evinced by the post-verdict proclamations of the three Ivy League schools named above and many others, top US institutions of higher learning will fight tooth and nail to preserve their admissions programs. While colleges will find ways to work around the newly imposed restrictions, the impact of the SCOTUS decision is real.

One thing for sure — next time their Regional Subcommittees and Full Committees of admissions officers (AOs) sit down to deliberate, discuss and debate the composition of their incoming freshman class, an applicant’s race or ethnic background cannot be a factor in making admittance decisions.

The Common App has already announced that as of August 1, 2023, colleges and universities can hide the self-disclosed race and ethnicity information from application PDF files. It is a foregone conclusion that soon enough, the Common App will remove applicants’ option to check the race box.

Although race-based preferential treatments of applicants have been banned, AOs still have various means through which an applicant’s race can be readily discerned. But applicants must provide the race and ethnicity information appropriately; otherwise, AOs are not allowed under the new regime to consider such information.

And the above strategy is supported by Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote that “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.” But “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.”

In short, per Chief Justice John Roberts, students are at liberty to include information about their race, heritage and culture in elements of their applications, like their personal statements, college-specific essays, teachers' and counselors’ letters of recommendation. But once again, it is important that students furnish race-related information in a way that can be considered by AOs; if not, AOs are required under the new rules to disregard such data.

Another spanner in the works is the declaration by Chief Justice Roberts that "What cannot be done directly cannot be done indirectly.” But given the holistic admissions system and its inherently high degree of opaqueness, such a directive may not be easy to police.

It is likely that AOs at elite colleges will become even more tight-lipped than ever before about how they make admittance decisions. Certainly, the days of AOs assigning a race-based boost to an applicant’s score in the “overall” category are gone. In fact, any admissions practice that is vulnerable to a subpoena order would be amended by colleges and their attorneys.

Suffice to say that how AOs consider applicants’ race-related information will be closely monitored by many.

One person that will be watching like a hawk is Edward Blum, an American conservative legal strategist and anti-Affirmative Action activist, who created SFFA and is the mastermind behind SFFA’s lawsuits against Harvard and UNC. As reported in the New York Times, Blum said that he “will be watching to see how universities like Harvard and the University of North Carolina adjust their admissions policies” and that “other schools may do something that is a direct proxy for race,” which “are going to be actionable in a court of law.”

In any case, the next phase of the US college admissions landscape will be compulsory viewing.

What should Asian and White students do now?
The SCOTUS decision may generate a mildly enhanced opportunity for Asian students, domestic and international, to apply to selective US colleges and universities, including the Ivy League schools and other elite institutions like Stanford, MIT, University of Chicago, Duke, Johns Hopkins, UCLA, USC and UC Berkeley, etc.

That’s because, as explained earlier, with so much scrutiny around, AOs are required under the new rules to at least look as if they do not discriminate against Asian students on racial grounds, which of course has been SFFA’s contention. Even AOs who have biases against Asian students — for instance, that Asian students are exceedingly overrepresented on US campuses — may try not to indulge too much in such views. Hence, the number of Asian students admitted may marginally increase over the next few admissions cycles.

While banning race as a factor in college admissions will make it harder for AOs to give preferential treatment to underrepresented minorities, it has minimal effect on AOs’ abilities to discern the ethnicity of Asian students, the vast majority of whom have Asian surnames like Chen, Huang, Li, Zhang, etc., which are dead giveaways of their racial background.
As such, Asian students should avoid making their task of gaining admissions to selective institutions by marginalizing themselves as stereotyped candidates.

For instance, a male Asian student whose extracurricular activities, played at a non-competitive level, are badminton, table tennis and chess and who applies to Stanford to study computer science is an overrepresented minority in the eyes of AOs.
Similarly, suppose a female Asian student's activities outside the classroom were piano and violin, which she plays for enjoyment. If she applies to Harvard to fulfil her ambition to be a doctor, again, according to the AOs, she too is an overrepresented minority.

The SCOTUS decision has not altered the fact that Asian students need to be particularly prudent in selecting their extracurricular activities, and how such activities may affect the way they are perceived by AOs at their desired institutions. Playing table tennis or the piano are great for personal enrichment, but unless their accomplishments in that space have been recognized at a high level, otherwise such activities may not be the best choice for Asian students’ college application profile. Asian students need to differentiate themselves from other highly competitive applicants. That pressure has not changed by SCOTUS.
After all, while some of the Supreme Court Justices vigorously assert that the United States is a color-blind society, ivyO leaves it to your good judgment as to whether it is or otherwise.

The key takeaway here is that Asian students are well advised to build their student profiles in a way that they won't be stereotyped.

Unsurprisingly, for White students, the Court's decisions have a negligible impact; except that their admit rates may slightly increase over the ensuing admission cycles.

What should Black, Hispanic and American Indian students do now?
Unfortunately, the group that will bear the brunt of the SCOTUS decision is the underrepresented minorities — Black, Hispanic, and American Indian students.

The flow-on effects will impose a heavier burden upon underrepresented students, who otherwise would have been encouraged and aided by affirmative action.

As such, the removal of affirmative action means that more than ever before, Black, Hispanic, and American Indian students need to strongly advocate for themselves in the college admissions process. First, do not be intimidated by the Court’s rulings; instead, focus on what you can control.

So… Apply! Apply! Apply!

Don’t allow yourself to be paralyzed by fear or self-doubt. Colleges and universities have kept their doors wide open to welcome you.

And don’t despair – even the Supreme Court stated that “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.”

The Court also stated that “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.”

Do read the two paragraphs above carefully, then mindfully craft your personal statement and, where applicable, college-specific essays. There is plenty of room for vigorous self-advocacy. It is imperative that you do that, especially in a college admissions landscape absent of affirmative action.

Remember this – the Court’s rulings did not change who you are.

You’re no less valued by colleges and universities today than before June 29, 2023.

You’re still your authentic self.

You’re still you. Go for it!

The SCOTUS Decision is Controversial, but Anticipated
The SCOTUS ruling is indeed controversial, but it was not unexpected at all. Why?

It’s obvious – the Supreme Court bench has a 6-3 conservative majority; so, its decision didn’t surprise many.

Incidentally, just in case if you have ever wondered whether it matters to attend an elite college like an Ivy League school, you don’t have to look any further than the US Supreme Court bench…

Of the nine Justices that sit there, 7 of them completed their undergraduate studies at an Ivy League school. 8 of them took their law degrees at either Harvard or Yale Law School. The split between the two law schools is a dead heat at 4 Justices each.

The picture is stark – the crème de la crème of US colleges, such as the Ivy League schools, have a monstrously and disproportionately outsized influence on America, despite the relatively minuscule number of graduates they produce each year.

Not sure how the Court’s Decision Affects Your US College Applications?
In light of the Court’s decision, it is understandable that countless college-bound students across the globe are confused as to how their applications would be impacted by the SCOTUS rulings. If you’re one of them, know that ivyO stands ready to guide you through this complex terrain.

So, if you need help navigating this new and potentially treacherous US college admissions landscape, reach out to ivyO by clicking the button below:

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