Affirmative Action is Gone. What’s Next for Walls Students?
The Supreme Court of the United States Credits: David Sipos
Walls students face a major change in the college application landscape with the recent Supreme Court decision to strike down race-based affirmative action. In July, the Supreme Court sided with the Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) in the cases of SFFA v. Harvard University and SFFA v. University of North Carolina, finding in both cases that the schools’ affirmative action policies violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
The court’s decision limits schools’ ability to prefer applicants based solely on their race, but does not preclude schools from using affirmative action policies based on gender or socioeconomic status. Neither did it ban the practice of legacy admissions, where relatives of alumni are preferred in college admissions.
Many colleges and universities across the country have voiced disappointment with the decision and have expressed their continued commitment to diversity. Students, too, have voiced disdain for the decision. “I was really shocked,” said Amira Schroeder (‘24). “People are viewing affirmative action as someone else taking their spot at college when this spot wasn’t theirs to begin with.” She also expressed her frustration “that legacy admission is deemed constitutional and race-based affirmative action isn’t.”
Niyah Sapp (‘24), the vice president of the Black Student Union, also voiced her support for the policy. “I’m an African American student and I’m also a senior, so I know the college process is going to be a little different now,” she said. She explained that she believes race-based “affirmative action helps people … from [marginalized] groups to have opportunities in schools” that they wouldn’t otherwise have. Sapp added that the continued use of legacy admissions without racial affirmative action would especially hurt diversity in colleges.
However, not all students see the end of affirmative action as a problem. One senior, who preferred to remain anonymous, celebrated the decision. They described race-based affirmative action as “a racist policy towards Asian Americans and white Americans that discriminates against them.”
Mychael Brown (‘24) added another perspective against affirmative action. “As a Black man, I see it as [colleges are] giving me a handout because [they] don’t think that my ability can compete with people who have a different skin color than me,” Brown said. While he supported efforts to increase diversity and representation in colleges, “the way… to do it is not going by race.” “Really what it’s doing is it’s saying I can get in because you think my race can’t have that opportunity normally,” Brown explained.
Sapp disagreed. “I wouldn’t necessarily categorize it as a handout if you’re in a society where you’re constantly being put down… if anything, it’s like someone reaching their hand out to help,” she said. The decision has sparked discussions like these in high schools throughout the U.S., as both students and school faculty attempt to decipher what the court’s ruling will mean for the college admissions process.
In the aftermath of the decision, Walls school counselors are grappling with how, if at all, to change the guidance for their students. This, however, is a difficult task because as explained by class of 2024 counselor Kathryn Moore, “we don’t know yet exactly how students will be affected moving forward.”
Many students at Walls have questions about whether the end of affirmative action will make discussing race detrimental to their application. “Students should present their authentic selves on their college applications, including race or any other aspect of identity. At this point, we would not advise students to do anything differently than they have in the past,” said Ms. Moore. This general guidance has been echoed by admissions officers across the country including by Mark Dunn, Associate Director of Admissions at Yale University. On a special episode of his podcast, Inside the Yale Admissions office, he said “if you don’t work in an admissions office, you don’t need to change anything.” This year’s ruling isn’t the first time race-based affirmative action has been challenged. Prior to the 2023 decision, eight U.S. states already had prohibited the practice, the largest being California, which became the first state to ban race-based affirmative action in 1996.
Advocates for increased diversity in schools remain dissatisfied with the state of California colleges, which have yet to meet their diversity and equity targets nearly three decades after the decision.
Many California schools have worked in recent decades to focus on other ways to increase diversity without affirmative action. However, a statement from University of California chancellors sent to the Supreme Court said that “despite its extensive efforts, the UC struggles to enroll a student body that is sufficiently racially diverse to attain the educational benefits of diversity.” Given that many schools see increased diversity as a valuable vehicle to expose students to new ideas, colleges are not going to stop trying to recruit diverse classes.
Some researchers and admissions officers have suggested that universities should shift their focus to socioeconomic diversity, which would prioritize lower-income applicants. Richard Kahlenberg, who served as an expert witness for the plaintiffs in both affirmative action cases this summer, has called for the implementation of class-based affirmative action policies. Kahlenberg has noted that many elite colleges, despite diversifying racially in recent years, have been stagnant in terms of their socioeconomic diversity. At Harvard, for example, 71 percent of the black, Hispanic, and Native American student population comes from the richest one-fifth of the national black, Hispanic, and Native American population.
In an interview with PBS, Kahlenberg further highlighted, in an interview with PBS, that in seven of the ten US states that had banned race-based affirmative action prior to this year’s supreme court ruling, they were able to get just as much Black and Hispanic representation through using metrics such as socioeconomic status as they previously did using race.
Many also see socioeconomic status as a simply insufficient replacement for race-based affirmative action. “I think trying to increase diversity is wonderful but I don’t think it should be just through socioeconomic status. For college admissions to [be] truly fair they should implement a combination of race-based affirmative action and also try to increase diversity in socioeconomic status,” said Schroeder.
“Although it’s not affirmative action, it may be one of the closest things to it,” Sapp added, noting the economic challenges often disproportionately experienced by racial minorities.
The proposal for class-based affirmative action has some more support among students opposed to the original race-based policies. “I’d have to do more research on what kind of impact that would have… but I’m definitely more open to that than race,” one senior said.
“If you really want people of different backgrounds, go by economic diversity,” said Brown. He also suggested that colleges should allow applicants to write an essay about how race or racial adversity has affected their life. Besides socioeconomic diversity, some schools have offered applicants this option. The Supreme Court decision mentioned this as an option for colleges, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing that the decision does not prevent schools “from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life.”
Given this now more convoluted playing field in terms of diversity efforts, Ms. Moore advised students to arm themselves with as much information as possible about the affirmative action or affirmative action adjacent policies at schools they’re applying to. She said, “many colleges have issued statements regarding their efforts to prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) on their campuses in light of the decision. We would encourage students to ask about those efforts during college visits, tours, etcetera to get a better understanding of how that college supports and fosters D.E.I. on their campus.”