Supreme Court to Hear Challenge to Affirmative Action in College Admissions

Harvard and UNC-Chapel Hill were sued for considering race in admissions. A decision against them could mean the end of affirmative action in college admissions.

January 24, 2022 · Updated on May 6, 2022

Edited by Alex Pasquariello
Supreme Court to Hear Challenge to Affirmative Action in College Admissions
Higher Ed Policy
Photo by Kent Nishimura / Contributor / Los Angeles Times / Getty Images

  • Students for Fair Admissions sued Harvard University and the University of North Carolina in 2014.
  • The conservative nonprofit argued each school's consideration of race in admissions discriminated against Asian Americans.
  • Lower courts previously upheld the policies of both universities.
  • A decision against the schools could mean the end of affirmative action in college admissions.

The Supreme Court will once again decide the fate of affirmative action in college admissions, announcing Monday that it will hear a case challenging the use of race in admissions at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Conservative nonprofit Students for Fair Admissions brought suits against each school in 2014, alleging that their consideration of race in admissions was unconstitutional. Each case was thrown out by lower courts, leading the group to file an appeal of both cases to the Supreme Court last November.

In its petition for certiorari, Students for Fair Admissions argues that each school awards racial preference to African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans, and therefore discriminates against Asian Americans, since they are not considered an "underrepresented" group.

College Affirmative Action in Jeopardy

The Supreme Court will hear testimony in the Students for Fair Admissions case for one hour during its next session, which begins next October. A decision is likely by June 2023, according to court watchers.

Harvard University President Lawrence Bacow stood by the school's admissions process in a statement issued Monday. He noted that the court's decision to review the unanimous decisions of the lower federal courts puts at risk four decades of legal precedent granting colleges and universities the freedom and flexibility to create diverse campus communities.

"Considering race as one factor among many in admissions decisions produces a more diverse student body which strengthens the learning environment for all," he said. "Harvard will continue to defend vigorously its admissions practices and to reiterate the unequivocal decisions of those two federal courts: Harvard does not discriminate; our practices are consistent with Supreme Court precedent; there is no persuasive, credible evidence warranting a different outcome."

The Supreme Court in a 1978 ruling outlawed racial quotas but allowed the use of race as one factor among many in college admissions so that school's can enroll a diverse student body.

That decision was largely upheld in a 2003 ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger, which affirmed the University of Michigan Law School's consideration of race in its admissions program. The court most recently ruled on affirmative action in higher education in June 2016 when, in a 4-3 decision, it upheld the consideration of race in the admissions process at the University of Texas.

Students for Fair Admissions in its petition for certiorari asks the Supreme Court to overturn Grutter v. Bollinger. "...Grutter endorsed racial objectives that are amorphous and unmeasurable and thus incapable of narrow tailoring," the petition says. "Unsurprisingly then, universities have used Grutter as a license to engage in outright racial balancing."

The court's previous affirmative action decisions were upheld through one-vote margins, and the more conservative makeup of the current court leaves some to wonder whether it will overturn this precedent.

Students for Fair Admissions President Edward Blum in a statement issued Monday praised the court's decision to take up the case.

"We are grateful the Supreme Court accepted these important cases for review," he said. "It is our hope that the justices will end the use of race as an admissions factor at Harvard, UNC, and all colleges and universities."

Harvard, UNC Practices Upheld by Federal Courts

Federal judges referenced 40 years of Supreme Court precedent in rulings throwing out Students for Fair Admissions' 2014 lawsuits against Harvard and UNC-Chapel Hill.

U.S. District Judge Allison D. Burroughs first ruled in Harvard's favor on Oct. 1, 2019, finding no evidence of "racial animus" or "intentional discrimination" by the university. "Consistent with what is required by Supreme Court precedent," she ruled, "Harvard has demonstrated that it uses race as a factor that can act as a 'plus' or a 'tip' in making admissions decisions."

The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston on Nov. 11, 2020 upheld Burroughs' ruling. "The issue before us is whether Harvard's limited use of race in its admissions process in order to achieve diversity in the period in question is consistent with the requirements of Supreme Court precedent. There was no error," the ruling said.

A U.S. District Court found in NC-Chapel Hill's favor on Oct. 18, 2021. Judge Loretta C. Biggs ruled that the public university had "a compelling and substantial interest in pursuing and attaining" a diverse student population and "offered a reasoned decision for doing so." The judge also noted that the admissions program is "narrowly tailored" and that race "is not a defining feature in any of its admissions decisions."