Supreme Court poised to say “negative” on affirmative action

Padraig Pearlman, Editorials Editor

When Donald Trump stepped out of the White House for the final time, he knew he had left his mark on the United States. But few of his actions will leave a deeper scar than the three justices he appointed to the Supreme Court. Before his presidency, the four liberal justices, with the aid of moderate swing votes, were able to maintain recent precedents regarding LGBTQ and abortion rights. Now the Court is more conservative than it has been in a century, bringing reversals to progress made in the late 20th century. Roe v. Wade fell in June, gun control is weakening, and the barrier between church and state is being breached. These cases herald a grim conservative future for U.S. law.

But despite all the bad omens, the Court has the power to make a positive impact: abolishing the dated practice of affirmative action in college admissions. For decades, schools have favored applicants from certain minority races in an attempt to “level the playing field.” For example, pretend two people, A and B, are applying to a famous university. Applicant A grew up wealthy and attended a private school. Their application is near-flawless: a 4.0 GPA, perfect standardized test scores, well-written and insightful essays. Applicant B, on the other hand, grew up with fewer opportunities. They attended an underfunded public school and didn’t do as well on the SAT. Their essays aren’t as developed because their family couldn’t afford to hire an essay coach. In a vacuum, the university would admit Applicant A, even if Applicant B could have been “better” had they been given the same opportunities.

In theory, affirmative action should help colleges consider each applicant in the context of their upbringing. The only issue? It’s possible to do this without considering race. Schools could just as easily evaluate dozens of other socioeconomic factors— family income, quality of the applicant’s public school, availability of local opportunities, and many more. Instead, most top colleges justify racial preferences in admissions by claiming they’re necessary to keep the student body diverse. The word “necessary” here is key. In the landmark 2003 affirmative action case Grutter v. Bollinger, the Supreme Court ruled that schools need to show affirmative action is the only way to “create a critical mass of minority students.” In theory, race should be one of many factors used to evaluate applications (you may have heard about “holistic admissions” or the vague “whole-person review”). But all the evidence we have from behind the scenes hints at how common racism and stereotyping are in the admissions process. One investigator recalls hearing an Ivy League admissions officer remark, “Oh, typical Asian student. Wants to become a doctor. Nothing special here.” Asian applicants typically receive lower marks in the “personal” application category encompassing essays, interviews, and letters of recommendation. Data from a recent case reveals that a black Harvard applicant in the bottom half of academic performers has a higher chance of being accepted than a white applicant in the top 10%.

This practice is incredibly controversial, but the Supreme Court has upheld affirmative action several times since first ruling it legal in 1978. But the recent Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard is its opportunity to make real progress. SFFA, a group representing over 20,000 students and parents, is suing Harvard, alleging that its race-conscious admissions process is discriminatory and unconstitutional. It is likely that the Supreme Court’s decision will uphold or strike down affirmative action at every college in the country. The case is still pending, but thanks to the Court’s conservative makeup, we already know what that decision is likely to be: the Supreme Court is expected to rule in favor of SFFA and overturn affirmative action.

This case is a victory for applicants who are members of races that have been discriminated against in college admissions for decades. Far from leveling the playing field for minorities and allowing colleges to consider each application in context, affirmative action has bred an admissions process shot through with racism. All it takes is a short look to see the current process simply doesn’t work. It’s time for the Supreme Court to overturn affirmative action and make college admissions fairer.