Will the Supreme Court Ban Affirmative Action in College Admissions?

Consideration of race off-limits in eight states

This article was written by Ben Backes, a Researcher at the American Institutes for Research and an affiliated researcher with CALDER. His research focuses on the sorting of students to schools in higher education with a focus on disadvantaged students.

Supreme Court building (Image: Thinkstock)

In the coming months, the Supreme Court will consider—again—whether UT Austin’s use of racial preferences in undergraduate admissions decisions violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals had failed to apply strict scrutiny in affirming UT Austin’s admissions policy, thus vacating the Fifth Circuit’s original decision and sending the case back down.

[Related: Court Upholds University of Texas Affirmative Action Policy]

In the following year, the Fifth Circuit re-affirmed the university’s admissions practices, which was again appealed, and in June the Supreme Court announced that it would once again hear Abigail Fisher’s challenge in Fisher v University of Texas Austin, which is now scheduled for the coming December.

As with the original hearing, there is the possibility that the pending decision will make it more difficult for universities to justify using race as a factor in admissions. Many fear that preventing universities from considering race in college admissions will drastically reduce diversity on college campuses. But universities in some states that have already banned affirmative action are using an alternative way of achieving diversity—extending preferences to students with disadvantaged economic backgrounds.

California, for example, started implementing non-race-based methods of increasing on-campus diversity in the late 1990s. Kate Antonovics and I investigated whether admissions criteria changed as a result, and we found selective universities in the University of California system increased the preference given to both low-income students and students who were the first in their family to attend college. These types of preferences are less likely to run afoul of the courts and popular opinion. They also have the side effect of boosting diversity since racial minorities are disproportionately more likely to come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Giving preferences to socioeconomically disadvantaged students, however, does not fully restore the loss of racial diversity associated with ending affirmative action.

Read more at the Brookings Institution.