Supreme Court Decisions Up the Ante for Affirmative Action
Supreme Court Decisions Up the Ante for Affirmative ActionBrad Quin, Executive Director, Access & Diversity Collaborative
Over the last year, the U.S. Supreme Court has spoken twice on race-conscious diversity issues affecting institutions of higher education: first, in 2013’s decision on race-conscious admission practices in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, and then in 2014’s Schuette v. BAMN on Michigan’s voter initiative that banned the use of race/ethnicity in admission at the state’s public institutions. The 21st century demands greater attention to access and diversity in higher education, as evident through our changing demographics, workforce demands, and other external pressures. Although these cases preserved colleges’ and universities’ ability to consider race or ethnicity in enrollment policies and practices, they also arguably up the ante for institutions that wish to do so.
In a carefully worded compromise decision, Fisher emphasized that institutions must present sufficient evidence to demonstrate that their programs are appropriately designed and implemented. On the question of the necessity of using race and ethnicity (one of the relevant legal hurdles), the court underscored the importance of the serious consideration of workable race-neutral alternatives, concluding that if “a nonracial approach . . . could promote the substantial interest [in diversity] about as well and at tolerable administrative expense . . . then the university may not consider race."
In Schuette, although all eight justices explicitly affirmed these principles, the majority made it clear that if voters decide to limit public institutions’ consideration and use of race and ethnicity in admission and other enrollment practices, courts may not stand in their way.
Beyond keeping lawyers and commentators busy, these cases have central relevance to how colleges and universities can achieve their mission-based diversity goals. Specifically, these cases highlight the need for a more robust research effort and greater transparency to build public awareness and support. Institutions have many potential partners in these efforts, but more needs to be done to coordinate and collaborate across disciplines. Through its Access & Diversity Collaborative and other efforts, the College Board looks forward to continuing to contribute to institutions’ efforts.
Please find supporting resources prepared on behalf of the Access & Diversity Collaborative:
- Schuette v. BAMN: What the Supreme Court's Decision Means for Higher Education Institutions Pursuing Diversity Goals (April 28, 2014).
- Understanding Fisher v. the University of Texas: Policy Implications of What the U.S. Supreme Court Did (and Didn't) Say About Diversity and the Use of Race and Ethnicity in College Admissions (July 9, 2013).
The College Board’s Access & Diversity Collaborative, established in 2003, leverages the valuable experience and knowledge of its members to provide guidance and resources to colleges and universities in developing and implemented race- and access- related policies.