Race-aware admission, the educational benefits of diversity, and equity in college admissions will soon be on trial in the Supreme Court when it takes on the Harvard and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill cases vs. Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) later this year.
In the Harvard case, SFFA accused the university of discriminating against Asian American applicants by giving them lower personal ratings and holding them to higher academic standards. SFFA similarly argued in its case against UNC that the institution gave preference to Black, Latino and Native American applicants over White and Asian American applicants.
Both Harvard and UNC presented compelling cases in federal court proceedings, where they prevailed, for the lawful use of race-aware admission policies to diversify their student bodies. However, with the Supreme Court now taking the case brought forth by the SFFA, more than 40 years of legal precedent is at stake affirming higher education’s educational diversity interests. Colleges and universities are and should be worried about the Supreme Court’s action, as should leaders in business and industry, the military, and educational institutions and organizations, among others. Specifically for higher education, the ability of institutions to consider all the information available about an applicant as part of an individualized, holistic review process is in jeopardy.
The consideration of an applicant’s race in context is central to the advancement of equity interests as well as to enhancing the quality of the education provided. Contrary to public perceptions, such processes, when appropriately designed and implemented, do not categorically or mechanically favor any individual student based on their race or ethnicity. In reality—and as demonstrated in the Harvard and UNC litigation—the consideration of race involves a review of an applicant’s background, qualities and interests in an integrated fashion, with awareness of that applicant’s personal and educational context.
Colleges and universities do not rely on isolated test scores and grades as determinants of merit, as some believe. The process is much more complex, and institutions are not only evaluating candidates for institutional readiness—they are also aiming to assemble a student body of diverse cultures, perspectives and backgrounds to enhance the learning experience for every student on campus. As noted by education scholar Jeffrey Milem, such benefits include enhanced critical thinking, better problem-solving and greater levels of cross-cultural competence, to name only a few.
Reasoned and informed public engagement and amicus briefs that are empirically grounded are now critical. Longstanding legal precedent must be preserved as a foundation for success in the continuing advancement of college and university missions for the betterment of their students and all of society. There are reasons to hope that the court will fulfill its responsibility and apply governing precedent with fidelity, but if the court rules against Harvard and UNC, thus upending the use of race in the admissions process, colleges will not and should not change their equity and diversity commitments—even if such a decision could make attainment of those goals more difficult. The educational benefits of diversity are central to mission attainment at all nonprofit educational institutions that are chartered in the public interest.