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Affirmative Action and the Future of Racial Diversity in Higher Education

By Darius Spearman (African Elements)

The Supreme Court is currently hearing two lawsuits that challenge the admissions policies at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. These cases have significant implications for how institutions of higher education achieve racial diversity. The high court will review whether universities can use race as one factor among many in considering applicants for admission. This could upend decades of legal precedent and mean that colleges and universities can no longer use race-conscious admissions practices.

What is Affirmative Action?

Affirmative action is a policy or practice designed to achieve greater representation of ethnic minorities and women in a workplace, school, or other institution. It requires employers, educators, and institutions to take race or gender into account in hiring and admissions practices. The courts have been vague about how or to what extent to take race and gender into account, which has made affirmative action a controversial policy.

The Supreme Court Case on Affirmative Action

The Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) brought the two cases challenging admissions policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina. The Supreme Court is set to determine whether considering underrepresented racial minorities as one factor for admission among others discriminates against Asian-American applicants. The Court’s decision could affect universities’ ability to use race-conscious admissions policies and promote minority representation in their student bodies.

The Supreme Court’s Prior Rulings on Affirmative Action

The first legal challenge to affirmative action came in 1978 with Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. The Supreme Court ruled that the use of race as an exclusive basis for university admissions criteria violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, the court ruled that race can be used in admissions decisions at public universities if there is a compelling state interest and if affirmative action programs are “narrowly tailored” to meet that interest.

In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the University of Michigan in Grutter v. Bollinger, upholding the university’s use of race in admissions. In a 5-4 ruling, the Court ruled in favor of Michigan University’s law school admissions program, allowing universities to consider race among other factors in student admissions.

In summary, the Equal Protection Clause does not prohibit the Law School’s narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body. Consequently, petitioner’s statutory claims based on Title VI and 42 U.S.C. § 1981 also fail.


However, the Court also ruled against the University of Michigan in Gratz v. Bollinger, striking down the use of a point system awarded to ethnic minorities in undergraduate admissions.

In 2016, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion in Fisher v. University of Texas, stating that race could be used as a factor in university admissions decisions but must be done in a fair manner.

Diversity Matters: Why Affirmative Action is Necessary

With American society becoming increasingly diverse, it is important to reflect that diversity in our institutions. Studies have shown that diverse environments produce better educational outcomes.

Evidence gathered by the Century Foundation suggests that racially integrated classrooms can reduce students’ racial bias, improve satisfaction and intellectual self-confidence, and enhance leadership skills. These benefits may translate to better economic outcomes and, among other payoffs, prepare students to work in a diverse global economy , increasing the productivity, effectiveness, and creativity of teams.


In 1996, California voters passed Prop 209, banning consideration of race in college admissions. The state’s UC system admitted that despite its eliminating race-neutral measures such as standardized tests, it still struggles to bring minority representation to UC’s student body. In a friend of the court brief,

UC told the Supreme Court that “despite its extensive efforts, UC struggles to enroll a student body that is sufficiently racially diverse to attain the educational benefits of diversity. The shortfall is especially apparent at UC’s most selective campuses, where African American, Native American, and Latinx students are underrepresented and widely report struggling with feelings of racial isolation.


Race-conscious admissions policies are necessary to promote racial diversity in ways that a focus on socioeconomic status alone cannot. Students of color are more likely to attend underfunded and highly segregated public schools than white students. Black students are more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students. Affirmative action policies have been demonstrated to be in the state’s interest as an essential tool to improve educational outcomes for all students.


The Supreme Court’s decision on the Harvard and University of North Carolina cases is expected to be rendered in June of 2023. Given the current conservative makeup of the court and its demonstrated disregard for precedent, it seems doubtful that affirmative action will survive this challenge in any meaningful way. It will likely be necessary to formulate alternative policies to ensure that the voices of underrepresented students and students of color are present within the walls of higher education.

In conclusion, affirmative action is a controversial policy designed to promote diversity in the workplace, school, or other institutions. While some see it as a critical tool to ensure a diverse student body in higher education, others denounce it as “reverse discrimination.” The Supreme Court’s decision on the Harvard and University of North Carolina cases could have significant implications for how universities and colleges achieve racial diversity. Regardless of the outcome, it is essential to prioritize promoting racial diversity in our institutions to reflect the increasingly diverse society we live in and improve educational outcomes for all students.


Bedekovics, Greta. “5 Reasons to Support Affirmative Action in College Admissions.” Center for American Progress, 1 October 2019, Accessed 15 November 2022.

Burke, Michael. “The Supreme Court Is Slated to Hear a Major Affirmative Action Case. University of California Offers a Cautionary Tale.” KQED, 14 October 2022, Accessed 16 November 2022.

KENNEDY, JUSTICE. “Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306.” Casetext, Accessed 15 November 2022.

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