Supreme Court rules against affirmative action (2023)

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The nation’s top colleges are likely to enroll fewer Black, Latino, and Native American students after the Supreme Court ruled Thursday that colleges and universities essentially cannot consider race as a factor in the admissions process.

The ruling severely restricts colleges’ ability to use affirmative action to create more racially diverse campuses, and will likely curtail broader efforts to fight for racial equity in higher education.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said that Harvard and the University of North Carolina’s race-conscious admissions programs had violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution, which bars discrimination, because they “lack sufficiently focused and measurable objectives warranting the use of race, unavoidably employ race in a negative manner, involve racial stereotyping, and lack meaningful end points.”

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“Eliminating racial discrimination means eliminating all of it,” Roberts wrote.

That bar will make it exceedingly difficult for colleges and universities to consider race as part of their admissions process going forward.


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Roberts’ majority opinion did leave open a small window for how colleges could consider race in admissions. “Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise,” the chief justice wrote.

In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor described this as a meaningless concession — “nothing but an attempt to put lipstick on a pig.”

“The Court’s opinion circumscribes universities’ ability to consider race in any form by meticulously gutting respondents’ asserted diversity interests,” wrote Sotomayor. “Yet, because the Court cannot escape the inevitable truth that race matters in students’ lives, it announces a false promise to save face and appear attuned to reality. No one is fooled.”

Nine states — including California, Florida, Michigan, and Washington — already ban affirmative action at public colleges and universities.

This decision stems from two cases that were brought before the court by Students for Fair Admissions, an organization headed by Edward Blum, who has spent years fighting affirmative action.

Students for Fair Admissions sued Harvard and the University of North Carolina over their race-conscious admissions policies, arguing that they were unfair and discriminatory. The group alleged that Harvard’s policies, in particular, discriminated against Asian American applicants. The universities countered that they needed to take race into account to build a diverse student body, which brings educational benefits to the schools.

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The decision has big implications for students looking to attend the nation’s most competitive colleges, which are more likely to consider race as a factor in admissions.

“We know that Hispanic and Black students are less college-going than their white counterparts. We know that they’re coming from less-resourced secondary schools,” said Kate Peltz, a college counselor who’s written about how ending affirmative action could affect students of color. “The process is already harder for kids from underrepresented backgrounds, and it’s about to become more so.”

But the ruling likely will have little effect on the vast majority of college students who attend less selective schools, such as community colleges, which accept most students who apply.

Here are three major ways the ruling is likely to affect students who are applying to college:

Black, Latino, and Native students will be less likely to get into top colleges

Officials at several selective colleges have said they expect the numbers of Black and Latino students, in particular, to decline if colleges are essentially no longer permitted to consider student race as part of a holistic admissions review.

An expert working on behalf of Harvard, for example, estimated that getting rid of race-conscious admissions would cause Black enrollment in Harvard’s freshman class to fall from 14% to 6%, and Hispanic enrollment to drop from 14% to 9%. White and Asian American enrollment, meanwhile, would grow.

Data from states that previously banned affirmative action also provide a look at what may happen nationwide. After California and Michigan got rid of affirmative action, the share of Black, Latino, and Indigenous students at several of the most selective colleges fell sharply. Those figures tended to tick back up with time, but never fully rebounded — and they still fail to represent the racial diversity of high school graduates in those states, the Boston Globe reported.

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When colleges become less racially diverse, students of color often feel the schools are less welcoming — which could further depress the number of Black and Latino students on campus. That matters because Black and Latino students are more likely to benefit from the social capital that comes from attending a top college.

Colleges in states that axed affirmative action have tried alternatives to create racially diverse classes. That includes accepting a certain percentage of top high school graduates, recruiting from high schools that enroll large shares of underrepresented students, and giving preference to students from low-income families. But researchers and many college officials say those methods don’t work as well as explicitly taking race into account.

“There is no race-neutral alternative to being able to consider race,” Femi Ogundele, an official at the University of California, Berkeley, told the Los Angeles Times recently.

On top of that, colleges may not want to take new steps to ensure racial diversity for fear of violating the Supreme Court’s latest ruling.

“I think people imagine that we’ll find creative ways of working around the court’s decision, like using an applicant’s ZIP code as a stand-in for their race. But we won’t,” said Lee Bollinger, the outgoing president of Columbia University who was a defendant in a previous landmark Supreme Court case that upheld affirmative action. “We can’t knowingly violate the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision. We’ll have to abide by it, no matter how painful.”

Students, and their school counselors, will have to navigate a new college admissions terrain

The Supreme Court’s ruling will have the biggest effects on high-achieving high schoolers who are applying to highly selective colleges, as those institutions are more likely to use race as a factor in admissions.

A quarter of colleges considered race in admissions to some degree, according to a 2019 survey from the National Association for College Admission Counseling that was cited in the court case. But 60% of the most selective colleges — those that accept 4 in 10 applicants or less — considered an applicant’s race, according to a 2015 survey from the American Council on Education.

Those colleges serve a small slice of the nation’s undergraduates. This fall, colleges that admitted half of their students or less enrolled just 10% of U.S. undergraduates, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse.

For those students, this ruling may change which colleges they apply to and what information they share on their applications.

That’s left many school counselors and college coaches worried about whether they’ll have time to research and advise students on changing admissions policies. Many low-income students of color — whose school counselors tend to have higher student caseloads — won’t have someone to provide that kind of hands-on help.

“It’s already a complicated job that’s underresourced,” said Austin Buchan, a senior vice president at College Possible, a nonprofit organization that helps students from low-income families apply to college. “And this is just not going to do us any favors.”

Personal essays, which often ask students about their identity, values, and how they’d contribute to campus life, are likely to be especially fraught.

During both sets of oral arguments, several justices asked whether students would still be permitted to talk about certain personal experiences, such as overcoming racial discrimination or taking pride in their family’s cultural traditions, if race could not be considered.

A lawyer for Students for Fair Admissions said “culture, tradition, heritage are all not off limits for students to talk about and for universities to consider” so long as the college awarded credit for “something unique and individual in what they actually wrote, not race itself.” Some justices noted that distinction could be hard for colleges to make.

For that reason, some college access coaches and school counselors worry that students will avoid talking about anything that could hint at their race, even if it could enhance their application.

“Students might self-censor,” said Marie Bigham, the executive director of ACCEPT, a nonprofit that advocates for racial equity in college admissions. “Racial identities and experiences are just so interwoven with our lives in the United States. How do you pull that apart effectively in a way that’s not going to be constantly scrutinized?”

Some students of color may lower their college ambitions

School counselors and college coaches say Black and Latino students already hold off on applying to the nation’s top colleges, or worry they don’t deserve their spots when they get accepted. The latest Supreme Court ruling, they said, could cause more students to question their abilities and whether they want to pursue higher education — at a time when there’s already been a spike in students skipping college.

“It’s compounding a narrative that many students feel reinforced at each step of the process,” said Buchan, of College Possible. He worries the ruling will cause more students to think: “See, I told you higher ed isn’t for me.”

Some research also supports the idea that student motivation suffers when affirmative action is off the table. Natalie Bau, an economics professor at UCLA, looked at what happened when Texas lifted its ban on considering race in college admissions.

She and her colleagues found that Black and Latino high schoolers had better school attendance, higher SAT scores, higher grades, and applied to more colleges — and the effects were greatest for students with the highest test scores.

The thinking is “before it seemed too hard” to get into a more selective college, and “now it becomes attainable, so it makes sense to put in that extra effort,” Bau said. With a nationwide ban on affirmative action, Bau said, student motivation may slip.

“Underrepresented minority students might reduce their effort in high school and that might result in lower test scores, lower grades, lower attendance, and fewer applications to selective institutions,” Bau said. “That might make this under-application problem worse.”

Kalyn Belsha is a national education reporter based in Chicago. Contact her


Supreme Court rules against affirmative action? ›

The Supreme Court's landmark decision on Thursday to gut affirmative action has made it unlawful for colleges to take race into consideration as a specific factor in admissions.

What has the Supreme Court ruled regarding affirmative action? ›

The Supreme Court's landmark decision on Thursday to gut affirmative action has made it unlawful for colleges to take race into consideration as a specific factor in admissions.

Will the Supreme Court strike down affirmative action? ›

The Supreme Court on Thursday struck down affirmative action in college admissions, declaring race cannot be a factor and forcing institutions of higher education to look for new ways to achieve diverse student bodies.

Has Bakke been overturned? ›

Bakke was ordered admitted to UC Davis Medical School, and the school's practice of reserving 16 seats for minority students was struck down. Judgment of the Supreme Court of California reversed insofar as it forbade the university from taking race into account in admissions.

How will Supreme Court decision affect college admissions? ›

Supreme Court ends race-conscious college admissions. How will it change California education? The Supreme Court on Thursday said universities and colleges could no longer use a form of race-conscious admissions, rejecting a decades-old precedent in affirmative action policy.

What has the Supreme Court ruled with regard to affirmative action quizlet? ›

The Supreme Court has limited the application of affirmative action. In general, the Supreme Court has allowed practices seeking to redress instances of discrimination unless those practices infringe on the rights of individuals or unless they involve the strict use of quotas.

How did the Supreme Court rule on affirmative action quizlet? ›

-The Court ruled that particular affirmative action policies violate the Fourteenth Amendment. -The Court decided that affirmative action policies must survive strict scrutiny. How has the Supreme Court influenced the application of the Voting Rights Act in its recent decisions?

What states have gotten rid of affirmative action? ›

Nine states in the United States have banned race-based affirmative action: California (1996), Washington (1998, rescinded 2022), Florida (1999), Michigan (2006), Nebraska (2008), Arizona (2010), New Hampshire (2012), Oklahoma (2012), and Idaho (2020).

Can states go against Supreme Court decisions? ›

A decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, a federal court, is binding on state courts when it decides an issue of federal law, such as Constitutional interpretation. The Constitutional issues are federal. The state trial court is thus bound by the U.S. Supreme Court's decisions about the Constitutional issues in your case.

Who voted to overturn affirmative action? ›

Justices appointed by Republican presidents voted to overturn affirmative action in college admissions. These are: Chief Justice John Roberts.

What was the outcome of the Bakke case? ›

In Regents of University of California v. Bakke (1978), the Court ruled unconstitutional a university's use of racial "quotas" in its admissions process, but held that affirmative action programs could be constitutional in some circumstances.

Why was Bakke denied admission? ›

Allan Bakke, a white male in his thirties, twice applied for admission at the school but was rejected, partially because of his advanced age. Bakke's interviewer considered him “a very desirable candidate”; his GPA was comparable to other admittees and his MCAT scores were all significantly greater.

What was the conclusion of University of California v Bakke? ›

Recent News. Bakke decision, formally Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, ruling in which, on June 28, 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court declared affirmative action constitutional but invalidated the use of racial quotas.

How many colleges use affirmative action? ›

State data
[hide]Historical consideration of race at public four-year universities in the United States
StateState banPublic 4-year colleges
49 more rows

What does the affirmative action ban mean? ›

The Supreme Court's ban on affirmative action means colleges will struggle to meet goals of diversity and equal opportunity. After extensive deliberation, the Supreme Court has delivered a landmark ruling that effectively prohibits the use of race-based affirmative action in college admissions.

What are three factors that can influence Supreme Court decisions? ›

But additional legal, personal, ideological, and political influences weigh on the Supreme Court and its decision-making process. On the legal side, courts, including the Supreme Court, cannot make a ruling unless they have a case before them, and even with a case, courts must rule on its facts.

What was the court case that overturned affirmative action? ›

Grutter v. Bollinger
Supreme Court of the United States
Argued April 1, 2003 Decided June 23, 2003
Full case nameBarbara Grutter, Petitioner v. Lee Bollinger, et al.
Docket no.02-241
17 more rows

When was the ruling on affirmative action? ›

What is the history of affirmative action in the US? In 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order mandating that federal contractors “take affirmative action” to ensure applicants were hired and treated equally regardless of “race, creed, color or national origin.”

Why did the Supreme Court overturn the Griswold v Connecticut decision? ›

The court held that the statute was unconstitutional, and that its effect was "to deny disadvantaged citizens ... access to medical assistance and up-to-date information in respect to proper methods of birth control." By a vote of 7–2, the Supreme Court invalidated the law on the grounds that it violated the "right to ...

What has caused the Supreme Court to weaken affirmative action laws? ›

What has caused the Supreme Court to weaken affirmative action laws? The Court decided that affirmative action policies must survive strict scrutiny. Some affirmative action policies violated the Fourteenth Amendment.

Was the first Supreme Court case to challenge affirmative action programs in the US? ›

On June 26, 1978, the Supreme Court handed down the first major affirmative action decision concerning university admissions, involving a 38-year-old white engineer Allan Bakke's petition to enter a California medical school.

Why might the Supreme Court find instances of affirmative action unconstitutional quizlet? ›

Why might the Supreme Court find instances of affirmative action unconstitutional? The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) ruled that creating "an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment" is contrary to the law.

What is one argument in favor of affirmative action? ›

In support of Affirmative Action

Affirmative Action is designed to end the discrimination of people based on race and nationality. It is a way to give non-whites an opportunity to have decent jobs and add to the diversity at any work place.

What are the three types of affirmative action? ›

Affirmative actions include training programs, outreach efforts, and other positive steps. These procedures should be incorporated into the company's written personnel policies.

Which statement would most likely be made by an opponent of affirmative action? ›

Which of the following arguments would most likely be made by an opponent of affirmative action policies? Affirmative action discriminates on the basis of race.

What overrides Supreme Court decisions? ›

Court can declare a law unconstitutional; allowing Congress to override Supreme Court decisions; imposing new judicial ethics rules for Justices; and expanding transparency through means such as allowing video recordings of Supreme Court proceedings.

Can a state override the Supreme Court? ›

Indeed, James Madison—arguably the most important architect of our Constitution—contended that state governments have a legitimate right to defy the Supreme Court when the Court oversteps its constitutional authority. Congress enacted the alien and sedition acts in 1798.

Can the U.S. Supreme Court be overruled? ›

When the Supreme Court rules on a constitutional issue, that judgment is virtually final; its decisions can be altered only by the rarely used procedure of constitutional amendment or by a new ruling of the Court. However, when the Court interprets a statute, new legislative action can be taken.

Who does the affirmative action protect? ›

Affirmative action requirements are intended to ensure that applicants and employees of federal contractors have equal opportunity for recruitment, selection, advancement, and every other term and privilege associated with employment, without regard to their race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender ...

What amendment is affirmative action? ›

Affirmative Action Under the Fourteenth Amendment.

How many conservative justices are on the Supreme Court? ›

Since then, the Society has grown and prospered in numbers, influence and fundraising prowess. Succeeding perhaps beyond its dreams, it now counts the six conservative members of the Supreme Court among its current or former members.

Why did Allan Bakke sue? ›

After discovering that the university reserved spots for minority applicants as part of the school's affirmative action program, Bakke sued the school. He argued that the affirmative action program prevented him, as a white applicant, from entering and violated his rights under Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.

What was Powell's opinion on Bakke? ›

Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr., agreed, casting the deciding vote ordering the medical school to admit Bakke. However, in his opinion, Powell argued that the rigid use of racial quotas as employed at the school violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

What was Bakke claiming in his lawsuit? ›

Bakke sued, claiming any system that evaluated white applicants differently from minorities was “reverse discrimination” and therefore unconstitutional. Bakke won his lawsuit in California's state courts, but Davis Medical appealed to the Supreme Court.

What amendment did Bakke violate? ›

Bakke is a 1978 Supreme Court case which held that a university's admissions criteria which used race as a definite and exclusive basis for an admission decision violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

What was the majority opinion in Bakke v California? ›

Turning to Bakke's appeal, the court ruled that since Bakke had established that the University had discriminated against him on the basis of his race, the burden of proof shifted to the University to demonstrate that he would not have been admitted even in the absence of the special admissions program.

What is the 14th Amendment? ›

Passed by the Senate on June 8, 1866, and ratified two years later, on July 9, 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment granted citizenship to all persons "born or naturalized in the United States," including formerly enslaved people, and provided all citizens with “equal protection under the laws,” extending the provisions of ...

Who won Gratz v Bollinger? ›

Bollinger is a United States Supreme Court case regarding the University of Michigan undergraduate affirmative action admissions policy. In a 6-3 decision announced on June 23, 2003, the Supreme Court ruled that the university's point system was too mechanistic and therefore unconstitutional.

What did the Supreme Court determine was unconstitutional in Brown v Board of Education? ›

In this milestone decision, the Supreme Court ruled that separating children in public schools on the basis of race was unconstitutional.

Who won the Grutter v Bollinger case? ›

Bollinger, a case decided by the United States Supreme Court on June 23, 2003, upheld the affirmative action admissions policy of the University of Michigan Law School. The decision permitted the use of racial preference in student admissions to promote student diversity.

Can private colleges still use affirmative action? ›

For the first time, private colleges in California and around the country will be barred from considering race in admissions decisions, just as the state's public schools have been since 1996.

What are the disadvantages of affirmative action in education? ›

Perhaps the most tragic side effect of affirmative action is that very significant achievements of minority students can become compromised. It is often not possible to tell whether a given student genuinely deserved admission to Stanford, or whether he is there by virtue of fitting into some sort of diversity matrix.

What is affirmative action in simple terms? ›

Affirmative action refers to a policy aimed at increasing workplace and educational opportunities for people who are underrepresented in various areas of our society. It focuses on demographics with historically low representation in leadership and professional roles.

Is affirmative action outlawed? ›

In California, it's a slightly different story: Affirmative action has been banned in the state's public colleges for decades, since Proposition 209 struck down the practice for public employment, contracting and education in 1996.

Does Harvard have affirmative action? ›

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday struck down affirmative action programs at the University of North Carolina and Harvard in a major victory for conservative activists, ending the systematic consideration of race in the admissions process.

Who brought affirmative action to Supreme Court? ›

The affirmative action cases were brought by conservative activist Edward Blum, who also was behind an earlier affirmative action challenge against the University of Texas as well as the case that led the court in 2013 to end use of a key provision of the landmark Voting Rights Act.

Can Supreme Court overturn federal law? ›

While the Constitution does not explicitly give the Court the power to strike down laws, this power was established by the landmark case Marbury v. Madison, and to this day, no Congress has ever seriously attempted to overturn it. Abolishing judicial review entirely is unlikely to occur anytime soon.

What is the Supreme Court's Rule of Four? ›

The “rule of four” is the Supreme Court's practice of granting a petition for review only if there are at least four votes to do so. The rule is an unwritten internal one; it is not dictated by any law or the Constitution.

What are the 3 constitutional requirements to a Supreme Court justice? ›

The Constitution does not specify qualifications for Justices such as age, education, profession, or native-born citizenship. A Justice does not have to be a lawyer or a law school graduate, but all Justices have been trained in the law.

What was the first major affirmative action case ruled on by the Supreme Court quizlet? ›

The case of University of California Regents v. Bakke was the first dispute over affirmative action policy in the U.S. Supreme Court.

What was the Supreme Court decision on the Bakke case? ›

Among his most well-known decisions was Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), in which Powell led the court in ruling that affirmative action was constitutional as a mechanism to achieve diversity, though the court rejected the use of strict numerical quotas as a means to that end.

When did affirmative action become legal? ›

Executive Order 11246

On September 24, 1965 President Lyndon B. Johnson issued Executive Order 11246, prohibiting employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, and national origin by those organizations receiving federal contracts and subcontracts.

Who dissented in affirmative action case? ›

Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina Supreme Court Justice and a vocal proponent of race-based affirmative action, wrote the dissenting opinion joined by the court's two other liberal justices.

What was the first major Supreme Court case to challenge affirmative action? ›

On June 26, 1978, the Supreme Court handed down the first major affirmative action decision concerning university admissions, involving a 38-year-old white engineer Allan Bakke's petition to enter a California medical school.

What did the Supreme Court rule in Gratz v Bollinger 2003? ›

Bollinger, 539 U.S. 244 (2003) The Fourteenth Amendment prohibits a public university from using an undergraduate admissions policy in which race is the sole reason behind awarding 20 percent of the minimum points required for admission.

Which case upheld affirmative action? ›

Regents of the University of California v. Bakke was a landmark case decided in 1978 that set the grounds for affirmative action, determining that race was constitutional criteria for admission — when considered along with other factors.

Why was Allan Bakke denied? ›

In the case, Bakke was a white male who applied to medical school at the University California at Davis. Although his admissions score was well above that of the average admittee and the school had open slots when he applied, his application was rejected because of the school's racial quota system.

What is executive order 11114? ›

Executive Order 11114—Extending the Authority of the President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity.

What is the constitutional law of affirmative action? ›

Affirmative action is defined as a set of procedures designed to; eliminate unlawful discrimination among applicants, remedy the results of such prior discrimination, and prevent such discrimination in the future. Applicants may be seeking admission to an educational program or looking for professional employment.

What did Executive Order 11246 do? ›

It prohibits federal contractors and federally assisted construction contractors and subcontractors, who do business with the federal government from discriminating in employment decisions on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

Who controls affirmative action? ›

Affirmative Action | U.S. Department of Labor.

Do Supreme Court justices write dissenting opinions? ›

A dissenting opinion refers to an opinion written by an appellate judge or Supreme Court Justice who disagrees with the majority opinion in a given case. A party who writes a dissenting opinion is said to dissent.

Who writes the dissenting opinion in the Supreme Court? ›

After the votes have been tallied, the Chief Justice, or the most senior Justice in the majority if the Chief Justice is in the dissent, assigns a Justice in the majority to write the opinion of the Court. The most senior justice in the dissent can assign a dissenting Justice to write the dissenting opinion.


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