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Supreme Court overturns legal precedent on college affirmative action programs

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

With the heated discussion of a Supreme Court ruling - we have some preliminary answers to how that ruling affects university admissions.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The court majority rejected elaborate policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina. Both elite schools looked at race as one factor in the admissions process. The ruling says that violates the Constitution's requirement for equal treatment regardless of race. Dissenters said the Constitution promises equality, and it was all right for schools to act on that promise.

INSKEEP: NPR's Elissa Nadworny is here. Good morning.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: First, how did the court explain its ruling?

NADWORNY: So Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion, and he said, however well-intentioned the policies at UNC and Harvard were, they failed to use race within the narrow confines of what the Constitution allows. He did leave the door open, writing that schools could consider an application's discussion of how race affected his or her life. I talked about this with Sarah Parshall Perry. She's a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation who was encouraged by the decision.

SARAH PARSHALL PERRY: The court is clear that universities can consider an applicant's discussion of how race affected their individual lives, but we will no longer see individuals checking a box or being subjected to a college or university's quota system.

NADWORNY: So universities don't really have quotas, but Harvard was using a point system to rate students' identities.

INSKEEP: And this is the thing the court says is wrong. Now, if you had an individual experience with race that you want to talk about in your application, you can do that, but you no longer get credit, the court says, for being a member of a group, so-called. What are colleges and admissions professionals saying about all that?

NADWORNY: So even though it was expected, it's a major blow to colleges who are committed to diverse campuses. I talked with Angel Perez. He leads the National Association of College Admissions Counseling.

ANGEL PEREZ: Today's decision is going to make it a lot harder and a lot more expensive for institutions of higher education and admission officers to bring in a diverse class.

NADWORNY: He points to the University of California. There, it took decades, a complete admissions redesign and hundreds of millions of dollars to try and get those diversity numbers back up after the state's affirmative-action ban in the late 1990s. He says most states, most colleges don't have that kind of money or political will.

INSKEEP: This is an interesting point because you're telling me that universities, in response to this, are not saying, we're abandoning diversity. They're saying, we're going to try to get diversity in some other way. Does this affect every university?

NADWORNY: Well, it is a nationwide ruling, but most schools are open access. Think community college, lots of, you know, public four-year schools. Only a small portion, about 200, have highly selective admissions where this decision would apply. But what happens at elite institutions matters. They're gatekeepers to power in America. Take the Supreme Court justices. Currently, eight of the nine attended law school at Harvard or Yale.

INSKEEP: What does this mean for high school students who might be applying to college soon?

NADWORNY: I spoke with Sanjay Mitchell. He's a long-time high school counselor in Washington, D.C. He's been working with the students already to kind of reframe their essays to touch on their lived experience. But he says this whole thing has caused a lot of anxiety.

SANJAY MITCHELL: So students are asking the questions like, well, does my identity not matter anymore? Does that now mean that we are only going to be relegated to HBCUs? And those are the thoughtful responses at least. So the other kind of responses that we're hearing is, well, I guess they really don't want us to go to college. You know, well, they always say that college isn't for everyone.

INSKEEP: HBCUs, historically Black colleges and universities. What can colleges do within the law now to improve diversity?

NADWORNY: We can expect an increased focus on that essay, recruitment, expanding financial aid, including free college programs, and colleges may go test-optional. But, you know, over and over, research has shown that nothing is as effective at creating a racially diverse student body as considering race.

INSKEEP: NPR's Elissa Nadworny, thanks so much.

NADWORNY: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.