How Will the Affirmative Action Ban Impact Race-Based Scholarship Programs?

In the aftermath of the affirmative action ban, colleges and universities must now consider the future of race-based scholarship programs and their historical impact on college students of color.
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Updated on August 31, 2023
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  • The U.S. Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in admissions, but not financial aid.
  • Over time, students of color have greatly benefited from race-based scholarships.
  • Colleges have ways to recruit students of color without violating the Supreme Court ruling.
  • Given the recent ruling, racial diversity on college campuses has become a top concern.

Since the 1960s, affirmative action has been used in college admissions, specifically in an attempt to increase educational opportunities for historically excluded student groups.

While affirmative action has helped to increase racial diversity on college campuses, the inverse is also true — state-level bans on affirmative action have disproportionately harmed racial diversity on college campuses.

Furthermore, the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to strike down the use of race in college admissions decisions may have downstream effects on other mechanisms to increase racial equity in higher education, including race-based scholarships.

We learn from Dr. Joseph Flaherty the impact of the affirmative action ban.

Dr. Flaherty is the President and Chief Medical Officer at Western Atlantic University School of Medicine, and has more than 40 years of experience in the academic sector.

Why the Supreme Court Banned Affirmative Action

Emerging from the civil rights movement in the 1960s, affirmative action protected prospective and current employees and students from discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.

Since the 1970s, affirmative action in college admissions has been challenged repeatedly, with a consideration of a student's race being allowed in only narrowly curtailed circumstances.

More recently, a conservative advocacy group, Students for Fair Admissions, challenged affirmative action in college admissions again. The group alleged that such practices discriminate against primarily Asian American and white college applicants.

Simply put, the Supreme Court's recent ruling asserted that affirmative action in college admissions discriminated against students from certain racial backgrounds, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing, Eliminating racial discrimination means eliminating all of it.

More specifically, in Roberts' majority opinion, the Supreme Court argued that allowing affirmative action in college admissions violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Roberts went on to quote the Plessy v. Ferguson case, stating that the law in the States shall be the same for the black as for the white; that all persons, whether colored or white, shall stand equal before the laws of the States.

While the recent Supreme Court decision has implications for all U.S. colleges, nine states have already banned affirmative action: Arizona, California, Florida, Idaho, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Washington.

These state-level bans have almost uniformly reduced racial diversity within higher education, including medical schools and public institutions.

Historical Context of Race-Based Scholarship Programs

Long before affirmative action, the U.S. federal government's passing of the second Morrill Land Grant Act in 1890 helped establish historically Black colleges and universities to address the educational inequities faced by Black and African Americans, especially in the South.

To support Black and African American students, the federal government established the 1890 Scholarships Program, which provided financial assistance to Black and African American college students who were previously denied college access.

In the decades since the second Morrill Act, individual colleges established race-based scholarships and aid programs meant to increase racial equity in higher education, including the Banneker Scholarship at the University of Maryland.

Soon after, professional organizations followed suit, creating race-based scholarship programs for students identifying as Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) to pursue both undergraduate and graduate programs, such as the Jackson Scholars program funded by the University Council for Educational Administration.

Race-based scholarship programs such as these were created for two reasons: to redress past societal wrongs. The second was to better serve the educational programs because having a mixture of a diverse group of students would be an enriched dialogue discussion, said Dr. Joseph Flaherty.

The impact of race-based scholarships cannot be understated.

For decades, BIPOC students have benefited from programs such as the Gates Millennium Scholars, which has helped students persist in higher education and mitigate student loan debt.

These programs have also incentivized participation in higher education.

Since 1993, the Hispanic Education Endowment Fund has awarded scholarships to hundreds of Hispanic students who may not have attended higher education without the fund's support.

The Impact of Affirmative Action Bans on Race-Based Scholarships

The Supreme Court's decision effectively bans colleges from considering race as part of the admissions process. However, many colleges have partnered with external organizations to award race-based scholarships as a way to incentivize and increase enrollment of students of color at their institutions.

For example, the University of Illinois at Chicago has facilitated scholarships for Hispanic students to pursue health fields and majors. And Louisiana State University has collaborated with advocacy groups to sponsor scholarships for Black students.

Over the years, these programs have helped make higher education more affordable for BIPOC students, as empirical research has repeatedly found that scholarships help students of color pursue higher education and remain enrolled, boosting institutional enrollment.

Complicating matters, the Supreme Court ruling does not address race-based financial aid or colleges using race as a factor in determining gift aid, such as grants and scholarships.

Despite unclear guidance, some colleges are already banning race-based scholarships, placing students of color who rely on these scholarships in peril of being unable to fund their higher education.

Moreover, eliminating scholarships for students of color will likely impact the lowest-income students who most need gift aid, even though the Supreme Court did not strike down scholarships based on socioeconomic status.

Flaherty argued that many colleges want to see a diverse group of students but are not going to risk themself of any danger by pushing it too much. In these cases, the wealthiest colleges in the best position to support students financially will likely avoid doing so to protect against future litigation, further harming students of color.

Alternative Strategies and Adaptations Institutions Can Make

Over the years, as affirmative action has been challenged in the Supreme Court, colleges and other institutions have made various attempts to continue using race as a factor in organizational decision making.

Flaherty argued that, In about 1978, there was a Supreme Court decision on Bakke, which basically said you can't have race quotas. For Flaherty, Bakke prompted institutions to explore other factors including giving extra points for coming from an impoverished background, having parents with less than a high school education, coming from a rural area with a poor school system, or having to work 20 or more hours a week while they were in college.

To Flaherty, There's a strong intersection between race and these characteristics, suggesting that assessing student factors were appropriate proxies for race without considering race specifically.

Following Flaherty's lead in the 1970s and 1980s, many colleges now facilitate need-based scholarships, which usually require a student completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) so that the college can verify a student's socioeconomic status.

Interestingly enough, the institution that lost the Bakke case, the University of California system, now facilitates a strictly need-based scholarship program called the Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan, covering full tuition for students whose families make less than $80,000 per year.

In a post-affirmative action period, other strategies to increase racial diversity on college campuses could include more targeted recruitment outreach and community-based approaches toward driving interest in an institution of higher education.

For instance, colleges could consider sending admissions counselors to areas populated by more BIPOC students. Or they could identify community organizations that serve communities of color to strategically recruit these potential students.

Many institutions already employ these strategies.

Texas State University employs regional counselors in specific areas of Texas that are historical communities of color, including the Rio Grande Valley. Similarly, Virginia Tech's Multicultural Academic Opportunities Program has created community connections with organizations that serve communities of color in hopes that students from these communities consider higher education.

Continue Addressing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Ultimately, Flaherty believes that although affirmative action has been deemed unconstitutional, its legacy will continue to operate in different ways.

I think people will get creative in terms of trying to achieve the ends, and I don't think it's just virtue calling, Flaherty said.

Moreover, Flaherty believes colleges will be under duress to strive toward racial equity.

I think spokespeople will come out of this to form a new movement, a mixture of students, people in civil rights categories, people that will speak out, and pressure will be applied [to universities].

Despite affirmative action's ban, the need for racial equity within higher education — and education generally — has never been more important.

Communities of color continue to be denied educational and financial opportunity, and the COVID-19 pandemic only accelerated many of society's hardships affecting people of color.

From here, social justice advocates and anti-racist allies must continue discussions on how colleges can promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. This includes how these colleges can push the boundaries of the Supreme Court's decision and continue providing education funding for BIPOC students in need.

With Contributions By:

Portrait of Joseph Flaherty, MD

Joseph Flaherty, MD

One of the most respected academic leaders in the United States, Joseph Flaherty, MD, has more than 40 years of experience in the sector, including being Executive Dean at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, the largest medical school in the US. A James Scholar, Joseph has been published in scores of prestigious, peer-reviewed medical journals and has been the recipient of awards and honors related to his work in the field of Psychiatry and teaching. Dr. Flaherty holds an MD from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.