There is very little I can add to the mountains of commentary criticizing or defending the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn affirmative action in University admissions. I do think it is important, however, to focus on its impact, which will be almost entirely limited to colleges and universities that are considered “elite.” As several analysts have pointed out, the U.S. has somewhere between 3,500 and 5,500 colleges and all but 100 of them admit more than 50% of the students who apply. There are only about 70 that admit fewer than a third of their applicants.
In other words, the schools most Americans attend admit most of the people who apply to them.
The fact that the Court’s ruling will have a limited effect does not, of course, excuse a decision that race cannot be considered, but legacy status, recruited athlete status, and financial aid eligibility—aka “affirmative action for Whites”– can.
Americans make competing arguments about affirmative action in college admissions: defenders point to the undeniable educational benefits of diversity in the classroom and the persistent effects of this country’s history of racial injustice; opponents point out that perceptions of favorable treatment diminish recognition of individuals’ accomplishments, and that race is no longer a clear proxy for disadvantage (should a Black doctor’s son who attended cushy private schools have a “leg up” over a poor White applicant?)
The fact that most perceptions about admissions aren’t accurate–I’ve served on admission committees–doesn’t mean they aren’t damaging.
The Court’s decision reminded me of a long-ago discussion with a relative. She was about my age, and we both had sons who were entering college. She was incensed that one of her sons had failed to gain admission to a particular, competitive school (I no longer remember which one), and attributed his rejection to affirmative action. If there wasn’t “favoritism for ‘those people,’ she was absolutely convinced her son (who was actually pretty unimpressive) would have been accepted.
I’ve read bits and pieces of the dissents, and–as a lawyer–find them persuasive. But as we’ve seen with other decisions of this radical Court, nuanced legal arguments rarely translate accurately into the ensuing political and social debates.
As the months pass, I may revise my current assessment of the impact of this decision, but right now, here’s what I see:
- People like my relative will be deprived of an argument that they use to justify their (already obvious) racial grievance.
- America’s changing demographics–a change that has already triggered the nasty expression of overt bigotries–will ensure the continued diversity of the great majority of university classrooms–especially as so many colleges are seeing fewer applicants and experiencing fiscal challenges.
- The impact of the decision will fall almost entirely on the elite institutions that produce the most privileged members of American society. The Chief Justice’s ruling (aptly described by Justice Jackson as a “let them eat cake” decision) will protect his alma mater and other elite universities from the equalizing effects of a more diverse student body.
The truth is, those elite universities are already experiencing what has been called the “gamification” of admissions. Families with the means to do so have engaged in multiple efforts to assure their offsprings’ success, from coaches to help with essays and SAT preparation, to actual bribes that led to jail terms for some celebrity parents.
What would a fair process look like? After all, the use of race–or legacy status, or athletic prowess, or wealth–is almost always applied to a pool of applicants all of whom are eligible for admission. Arguments about merit are beside the point–these schools get many more applicants who meet or exceed their criteria than they can admit. The issue is: when you have identified 200 students who can clearly do the work, and you have room for only 100, how do you decide which ones to admit?
One of the better suggestions would substitute socio-economic status for race; given the continued structural racism of American society, Blacks should be well represented in an underprivileged cohort. (Letting more poor kids of any color into Harvard and Yale would certainly increase diversity…)
According to survey research, a majority of Americans oppose affirmative action in higher education. Much of that opposition is because people don’t understand how it actually works, but there’s no denying that a lot of it is simple racism and a defense of privilege.
Meanwhile, a rogue Court continues to eviscerate legal precedent, with consequences that will likely extend far beyond the issues of the cases being decided…