U.S. Supreme Court Rules Race-Conscious College Admissions Are Unconstitutional
In a historic ruling on June 29, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the race-conscious admissions policies of Harvard College and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) are unconstitutional. A copy of the opinion, which is more than 100 pages and includes detailed legal analysis and historical perspectives, can be found on the Supreme Court website.
The Court's Decision
The use of race as an affirmative qualification or "plus factor" in a holistic admissions assessment had been legally permissible for nearly half a century. Following that precedent, Harvard and UNC considered race as a plus factor when assigning qualification scores to their applicants and when making final admissions decisions. The Court determined that such race-conscious admissions policies violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, thereby reversing the decisions of the lower courts that had ruled in favor of the universities.
In short, the Supreme Court found that the use of race as a plus factor in admissions violated the Equal Protection Clause because 1) it had a negative impact on applicants of other races, 2) relied on racial stereotyping and 3) lacked a "logical end point." Given that race was sometimes the dispositive factor in admissions decisions and viewing admissions as a "zero-sum," the majority concluded that applicants of other races were negatively impacted by the plus factor process. The majority objected to the use of separating applicants by six racial classifications, finding those classifications overbroad, arbitrary and based on stereotypes. The majority also objected to permitting race-conscious admissions practices for an indefinite period, asserting that exceptions to the Equal Protection Clause must be limited in duration.
The admissions policies at Harvard and UNC failed a strict scrutiny analysis that requires proof of a compelling interest and narrowly tailored means to achieve that interest. The Court found that while the universities identify "commendable" educational benefits arising from racial diversity, those benefits were not "sufficiently measurable" to determine whether they meet the compelling interest standard. The Court found no basis from which to evaluate whether the race-conscious admissions practices were narrowly tailored to achieve the universities' educational goals and when, if ever, those goals would be met.
Importantly, the decision still permits colleges and universities to consider "an applicant's discussion of how race affected his or her life …," provided that the consideration is tied to that person's individual experience and "unique ability to contribute to the university." The decision acknowledges that the experience of race may affect a particular applicant's personal development, character, leadership roles and goals, and that admissions officers may properly take those personal qualifications into account.
Over the coming weeks, Holland & Knight will provide a more detailed analysis of the Court's decision and its impact on affirmative action in higher education. In the meantime, please contact the authors or another member of Holland & Knight's Education Team to address questions you may have.
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