Reversing Course in Race-Conscious College Admissions

Affirmative Action in Higher Education Expert Blog Series
Blog Post
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Aug. 15, 2023

This is the first blog post of the Affirmative Action in Higher Education Expert Series, where legal scholars, researchers, and admission experts share how the recent Supreme Court decision to ban the use of race in college admissions will have severe implications for the future of diversity in higher education and beyond. Each blog in this series brings a unique perspective that elevates research, advocacy, and policy reform in ensuring students of color have equitable access to higher education.

On June 29, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court took extraordinary steps in reversing a long-standing commonsensical approach in college admissions that has existed for nearly half a decade. In a consolidated opinion in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard (2023) and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (2023), the Court, in a 6-3 opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts, held that the race-conscious college admissions policies that it had found constitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment since 1978 were no longer so.

That approach had permitted institutions of higher education to consider race as one of many factors in admissions decisions to serve their educational goals and mission. Those goals include building critical thinking skills, preparing future leaders to work in a multiracial and multiethnic society, and breaking down racial stereotypes. Educators can realize these benefits not just by having students of color on college campuses but by supporting inclusive learning environments so that students can interact across race and ethnicity and learn from one another, a concept that my collaborator and I term “dynamic diversity.”

With the Court’s “unjustified exercise of power” (to use Justice Sotomayor’s dissenting words), it is incumbent on policymakers to help colleges and universities continue to realize their educational goals and to address the serious long-term consequences that the Court’s ruling poses for society. My research shows that policies that prevent the consideration of race lead to significant declines in the racial and ethnic makeup of student bodies across educational sectors. Unfortunately, the consequences of bans on this practice extend outside admissions to other important areas of university life that can have damaging consequences for student success and graduation outcomes.

The Impact of Allowing Race-Conscious Admissions

Race-conscious admissions was on my mind in 2006 when I first examined race in graduate and professional school admissions in Texas. I focused my study in Texas because a lower court ruling (Hopwood v. State of Texas) prohibited the practice in 1996. But in 2003, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger upheld the constitutionality of race-conscious admissions and allowed public institutions in Texas to again use race as one factor in the admissions process. In the study, I used an analytic strategy (called differences in differences) that allowed me to estimate a direct connection between the policy change and student of color enrollment. I found gains in student of color enrollment with the resumption of race-conscious admissions. Specifically, the change in law led to a 3.4% increase in the proportion of African American, Latino, and Native American students who enrolled in public graduate and professional schools in Texas in 2006.

The increase in the student of color representation across educational sectors, such as selective colleges and universities and graduate and professional schools, is an important goal considering the critical role these institutions play in ensuring the economic health and welfare of our society as well as the legitimacy and strength of our democratic form of government.

The Impact of Prohibiting Race-Conscious Admissions

In other research, I have found that bans on race-conscious admissions, via statewide ballot measures or other avenues have led to a substantial decline in racial diversity in graduate education and across different fields of study, including in science fields that are critical to continued scientific and technological advancement and in schools of medicine.

Nine states have banned race-conscious admissions policies, six via ballot measures (California, 1996; Washington, 1998; Michigan, 2006; Nebraska, 2008; Arizona, 2010; and Oklahoma, 2012), one by executive order (Florida, 1999), and two others by legislative act (New Hampshire, 2011; Idaho, 2020). In one study, I found that the bans in four states (California, Washington, Texas (while Hopwood was in effect), and Florida) led to a 26 percent drop in the percentage of engineering graduate students who are Latino, African American, or Native American (a drop from 6.2% to 4.6%), a 19 percent decline in the natural sciences (a drop from 7.8 percent to 6.3 percent), a 15.7 percent decline in the social sciences (a decline from 12.1 percent to 10.2 percent), and an 11.8 percent drop in the humanities (a drop from 10.2 percent to 9 percent).

A decline in racial and ethnic diversity in graduate fields reduces the variety of perspectives available to foster innovation, tackle complex research problems, and advance scientific inquiry, particularly in fields such as engineering and the natural sciences. Given the already minimal representation of students of color in graduate education, these declines have significant consequences for the educational experiences of all students in the programs and long-term effects on faculty diversity across all of these fields as graduates enter the academic job market.

In a separate study of medical school enrollments, my collaborator and I examined the impact of affirmative action bans in six states: California, Washington, Michigan, Nebraska, Florida, and Texas (while Hopwood was in effect). (At the time, we did not include bans in Arizona, New Hampshire and Oklahoma, as they had been enacted too close to the start of the study.)

We analyzed data from 19 years – from 1993-2011, allowing us to cover four years before the implementation of the first ban in Texas and three years since the most recent ban in Nebraska. We found that following these bans, underrepresented students of color at public medical schools dropped by about 3.2 percentage points.

A decline in racial and ethnic diversity of medical students hurts the medical profession’s ability to address the crisis in the health and health care of minoritized racial and ethnic populations. A racially and ethnically diverse medical workforce provides more positive interactions between patients and health care professionals and greater access to health care for diverse and underserved populations. Studies show, for example, that patients of color are more likely to seek care from practitioners with whom they share a common race, ethnicity, or language. Racial and ethnic diversity in medical education enhances cross-cultural learning and competencies all practitioners need to treat a diverse patient population.

And close examination of medical school graduates indicate that professionals of color are more likely than their non-minoritized peers to practice in minoritized and medically underserved communities. Thus, when race cannot be considered as a factor in medical school admissions, communities of color are likely to suffer not just from the quality of health care they receive but also from its very availability, as fewer professionals of color are available to serve them.

Negative Consequences Beyond Admissions

In another study, my collaborator and I found the negative consequences of banning race-conscious admissions extends outside the context of admissions and into the work of administrators charged with supporting students of color once they are on campus. These institutional supports, such as anti-bias training for faculty and administrators, are critical as they help realize the important educational benefits of racial and ethnic diversity.

We interviewed fourteen campus-level administrators charged with implementing diversity policy at the University of Michigan including deans, faculty, center directors, and student affairs professionals in charge of adapting existing or developing new diversity-related programming. We wanted to understand how these administrators understood Proposal 2, which in 2006 banned affirmative action in Michigan, as influencing their work. We interviewed participants in 2011 and 2012, five years after Proposal 2 had been in effect and after the university had time to clarify any initial uncertainties regarding its legal requirements.

Research has demonstrated that efforts to support diversity on campus require visible, sustained support at various institutional levels and that individuals need to feel empowered to do their work. Yet, the administrators we interviewed described the ban on affirmative action as (1) limiting the conversations they felt they could have around race and racism; (2) making their individual efforts to support racial diversity less visible; (3) making them feel less empowered to advocate for racial diversity; and (4) contributing to concerns that students would have a negative perception of the university’s commitment to racial diversity. Even though Proposal 2 related to admissions, the consequences extended to diminishing important efforts for supporting healthy racial climate and the experiences of minoritized students on campus.

As Justice Sotomayor noted in her dissent: “Diversity is now a fundamental American value, housed in our varied and multicultural American community that only continues to grow.” Postsecondary administrators and policymakers must use all tools at their disposal to ensure that “the pursuit of racial diversity will go on” (p. 69) despite the Court’s decision.

Related Topics
Affirmative Action Higher Education Access and Affordability