Stephanie Saul, New York Times, January 15, 2023
In cases against Harvard and the University of North Carolina, the Supreme Court is widely expected to overturn or roll back affirmative action in college admissions. Many education experts say that such a decision could not only lead to changes in who is admitted, but also jeopardize long-established strategies that colleges have used to build diverse classes, including programs that are intended to reach specific racial and ethnic groups for scholarships, honors programs and recruitment.
Those rollbacks could then help spur colleges to end other admissions practices that critics say have historically benefited the well-heeled. Some schools have already ended their standardized test requirements and preferences for children of alumni. There is also pressure to end early decision, which admits applicants before the general deadline.
College officials warn that there is no way of knowing how sweeping the court decision will be. But the ruling, expected by June, is likely to have a broad impact on a range of schools, according to Vern Granger, the director of admissions at the University of Connecticut.
The cases against Harvard and the University of North Carolina, first filed in 2014 by Students for Fair Admissions, an anti-affirmative action group, argued that the universities discriminated against white and Asian applicants by giving preferences to Black, Hispanic and Native American students. The universities said they use race-conscious admissions because diversity is critical for learning, a claim that drew skepticism from the court’s conservative supermajority during the October hearing.
Recent polls suggest that most people believe colleges should not consider race or ethnicity in admissions decisions.
If the court rules as expected, the class admitted for the fall of 2024 will look quite different, education officials said.
“We will see a decline in students of color attending college before we see an increase again,” said Angel B. Pérez, the chief executive of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. “We will be missing an entire generation.”
Mr. Granger, who also serves as president of the association for college admission counseling, expects changes even at the community college level. Citing drops in applications following statewide bans on affirmative action in Michigan and California, he said that some students from underrepresented groups may simply not apply.
The institutions most likely to be dramatically affected are the 200 colleges and universities regarded as “selective” — meaning they admit 50 percent or fewer of their applicants. And for smaller, highly selective liberal arts colleges, like Wesleyan, the impact on college culture could be particularly noticeable, as professors on these tightly knit campuses say their small classes thrive on interactions by a diverse group of students.
A group of 33 of these schools submitted a brief in August to the Supreme Court. Some of them had graduated Black students even before the Civil War.
“The probability of Black applicants receiving offers of admission would drop to half that of white students, and the percentage of Black students matriculating would drop from roughly 7.1 percent of the student body to 2.1 percent,” the brief said, predicting a return to “1960s levels.”
Some schools, including Wesleyan, said they hope increased outreach to underserved communities would offset some of the impact of a Supreme Court ruling. But they may be limited in what they can do.
The court could prevent colleges from purchasing lists of potential applicants that focus on race and ethnicity, a common practice used in recruitment, Dr. Pérez said.
Colleges are planning behind the scenes for the court ruling, though they are reluctant to release plans, worried about potentially opening themselves up to legal action.
But some have made pre-emptive moves. Standardized tests, for instance, have long been criticized for handicapping poor students and students of color, partly because they may not have access to expensive test preparation classes.
And Students for Fair Admissions relied on test scores to try to prove that Harvard and the University of North Carolina discriminated against white and Asian applicants.
Now “test optional” policies, which grew exponentially during the pandemic, are becoming the new normal. More than 1,800 four-year colleges say they do not require SAT or ACT scores. And the number of students taking the SAT dropped to 1.7 million in the high school class of 2022 from nearly 2.2 million in the class of 2020.
Anthony A. Jack, a professor at Harvard’s graduate school of education, predicted that the court decision will “remove the stranglehold of the SAT.”
Julie J. Park, an education professor at the University of Maryland, said that students from underserved backgrounds are less likely to submit their standardized test scores when they apply.
“It tells me something that half of Black and Latinx students are saying, ‘I don’t want to submit my test scores,’” Dr. Park said, adding that research shows that test-optional policies have a small but positive impact on enrollment of underserved minority students.