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United States Supreme Court Strikes Down Two Race-Conscious Admissions Programs

in Education, News

In a controversial 6-3 decision, the United States Supreme Court struck down Harvard College’s admissions procedures, along with those of the University of North Carolina, as unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment.  Specifically, the Court held that the universities’ justifications for considering race in the admissions process did not pass constitutional muster.  All Ohio post-secondary institutions considering an applicant’s race as an isolated factor in the admissions process must review their policies and, if necessary, make revisions to bring them in line with the Supreme Court’s decision.

Facts: Both Harvard and UNC had complex and highly selective admissions processes, with multiple reviewers rating applicants in various categories.  In addition to considering academic, extracurricular, and personal factors, reviewers could and did take race into account in issuing their recommendations. Students for Fair Admissions Inc., a group representing anonymous Asian Americans rejected by these schools, alleged that soft quotas and other admissions practices violated their rights under the Equal Protection clause and Title VI.  The trial courts held in the universities’ favor and the First Circuit affirmed.  Plaintiffs appealed to the Supreme Court, which reversed.

Decision:  The Court held that the universities’ admissions procedures did not: (1) result from focused and measurable objectives warranting use of race; (2) avoid using race as a negative factor in admissions; and (3) indicate an identifiable end point for considering race.  The interests articulated by the universities, held the Court, were vague, unmeasurable, and could not be subjected to meaningful judicial review. Further, the Court noted that “college admissions are zero-sum, and a benefit provided to some applicants but not to others necessarily advantages the former at the expense of the latter.” The Court also explained that admitting students because of their race assumes that students of a particular race think alike, which is offensive and demeaning.  Finally, the Court held that the universities’ admissions policies did not set forth a logical end point for when race would no longer need to be considered.  Notably, the Court explicitly permitted universities to consider applicants’ discussions of how race affected their lives, so long as that response was tied to the individuals’ character traits or abilities.

Implications: Universities and other post-secondary institutions that permit use of race as an admissions factor must immediately review their policies and, if necessary, make revisions to ensure that the policy is permissible given the Supreme Court’s decision.   Although the Court did not explicitly bar the use of race in college admissions, the practical challenges in developing a constitutionally-sound, yet race-conscious, policy are likely to be insurmountable. Universities seeking diversity in their graduating classes will need to focus on other categories, including socioeconomic factors and measures of adversity.  This is a wide-reaching decision with extensive implications for post-secondary institutions across the nation.  Please do not hesitate to reach out to Weston Hurd’s education team for assistance in navigating this area of law.

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Weston Hurd LLP attorneys regularly assist school districts in all aspects of school law. For further information please contact Miriam Fair (mfair@westonhurd.com), or any of the education law attorneys.