The Impacts of the National Affirmative Action Ban

On Thursday, June 29th, 2023, the United States Supreme Court ruled that affirmative action college admissions policies are unconstitutional. As a result of the ruling that began with the cases of the University of North Carolina (UNC) and Harvard University, the race-conscious policies that had been in place for about half a century are now banned in all American colleges and universities, public and private.

Rather than implementing equity-driven “race-conscious” admissions processes, schools will be forced to shift toward “race-neutral” ones in a nation that, even in the twenty-first century, remains decidedly non-neutral about perpetuating forms of racial injustice.

Because the law was made effective immediately, higher education institutions have been left scrambling, not only to eliminate race-conscious admissions components ahead of the 2023 late summer and early fall application season, but to implement alternative strategies for promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion in their student bodies. Prospective college students, too, now have to contend with the loss of an important means of racial equity, the likes of which are often largely missing in their formative pre-college years.

What Is Affirmative Action in College?

In order to understand the impacts that the Supreme Court ruling will have on colleges and current applicants, it’s important to be clear about the historical context that gave rise to affirmative action in college as well as what this type of policy is and does. 

The Origin of Affirmative Action Policies in Higher Education  

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10925, which compelled government contractors to “‘take affirmative action’ to realize the national goal of ‘nondiscrimination.’” Many US colleges and universities were later galvanized to develop affirmative action admissions policies in the 1970s following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. 

Before this, students of color were banned from attending “white” higher education institutions in Southern states. They were instead relegated to less well-funded and less prestigious historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Even in Northern states, where the ban did not technically exist, white students were heavily favored in admissions. Black students who managed to gain admission experienced overt discrimination in nearly all predominantly white colleges and universities.

The Purpose of Affirmative Action

Kennedy’s order recognized the systemic nature of racism in the US and its far-reaching impact on the wellbeing of generations of non-white Americans. Related policies in higher education admissions, by extension, recognize that young people of color often don’t have the same socioeconomic and academic advantages as their white counterparts in the years leading up to college. One example of this is the high cost of SAT prep programs, which can significantly boost test scores for students whose parents can afford and facilitate them.

As race-conscious policies, affirmative action admissions seek to address the fact that inequality in society as a whole creates multiple race-related barriers to graduating from high school and attending college for non-white students. They attempt to mitigate these systemic barriers to higher education by allowing race to be one factor among many others as college admissions faculty evaluate applications.

The Impacts of Affirmative Action

Between 1966 and 1976, the total number of American Black students enrolled in colleges and universities leaped from 282,000 to an encouraging 1,062,000 as a direct result of affirmative action admissions policies. This has been a major driver of reducing poverty among African Americans, making middle-class Black Americans the largest economic segment of the larger demographic.

Race-based admissions policies also help to create a more diverse and inclusive environment on college campuses. This is beneficial to students of color and white students alike, as it fosters cultural learning and empathy. It equips all students with enhanced social skills and cultural competency, both of which are important for success in the workplace. College diversity can also help to combat racism in the industries that those students join when they enter the workforce.

Some States Had Already Banned Affirmative Action

There are 9 states that ban affirmative action in college admissions and have done so prior to the recent federal ruling: Idaho, Arizona, Florida, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Michigan, Washington, and California. As the second-most populous state in the nation, California’s case is particularly significant. The impacts of the ban there can be used as a bellwether for those that may occur in other states. 

Impacts of the Affirmative Action Ban in California

Given its current otherwise progressive political reputation, many people might be surprised to learn that the California affirmative action ban in public universities took place in 1996, with markedly negative effects. In 1998, Black and Latino enrollment at UCLA and UC Berkeley plummeted by 40%. Statistically, students in these groups:

  • Attended less competitive institutions instead
  • Had significantly worse long-term job prospects
  • Were less likely to attend graduate school (which is required for careers in many high-paying sectors)
  • Were less likely to enter lucrative STEM fields 

Since then, students of color have found predominantly white institutions less attractive overall, since in addition to the expected academic pressures, they are more likely to experience social adversity stressors as well. School administrators have reported that, despite having spent over half a billion dollars on diversity and equity efforts, they have been unable to reach their goals. Now that affirmative action admissions are banned nationwide, predominantly white colleges and universities will have to come up with new strategies for improving campus diversity. 

This will require finding ways to encourage students of color to apply, evaluating their applications in light of the challenges they face, offering equitable forms of financial aid, and taking steps to ensure that these students will feel welcome and accepted on campus. All of these factors are critical for increasing graduation rates and economic success for non-white students—and for dismantling systemic racism in America in general. 

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