On Oct. 31, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in two cases surrounding the constitutionality of race-conscious college admissions. In both cases, the court’s conservative majority indicated a willingness to end affirmative action in the process.
Brought forward by anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions, the cases surround admission policy at Harvard and the University of North Carolina, respectively.
Most recently, the Supreme Court ruled on affirmative action in higher education in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. The 2016 decision allowed colleges to continue considering race in applications.
Before the Fisher case, the Supreme Court had largely ruled the practice legal. In both its 1978 ruling in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke and its 2003 ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger, the court set the precedent that admissions offices could factor in race as one of many factors in an application — though it outlawed the use of quota systems in 1978.
Affirmative action is an “essential policy reform,” said Jonathan Collins, assistant professor of political science, public policy and education. At colleges, affirmative action “tries to ensure that there is diversity and, particularly, racial balance.”
“It serves to both provide opportunity for socio-economic mobility for historically marginalized groups, but then to also ensure that the space … offers the unique voices of multiple perspectives,” Collins added.
Collins pointed to Commencement as an annual example of affirmative action’s impacts: As alums from different graduation years march through the Van Wickle Gates in chronological order, he said he watches the classes grow increasingly diverse over time.
“You see the older classes — predominantly white men — and then as we get closer and closer to the more recent graduating classes, we see affirmative action policies changing the makeup of what our admissions process looks like with much more diversity,” he said.
“You start to see graduating classes from Brown University that start to better reflect the makeup of not just the country,” Collins added, “but the world.”
When affirmative action has come up in the courts, Brown’s administration has repeatedly defended it. In 2003, President Ruth Simmons called for the policy’s expansion. In 2015, Brown submitted an amicus brief with 12 other schools in support of the University of Texas in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin.
The University has again expressed support for affirmative action in these cases. has again expressed support for affirmative action in these cases. In February, President Christina Paxson P’19 told Bloomberg News that colleges “haven’t found a good alternative” to affirmative action to build a diverse student body. In August, Brown joined an amicus brief with 14 other colleges, including every Ivy League school not included in the case, calling for the continuation of affirmative action.
Sean Fischer ’23 said he recognizes the central goals of affirmative action. But Fischer, co-founder and co-president of the student organization Free Inquiry at Brown, which discusses “hot-button” issues, said he believes that the policy ultimately harms certain racial groups.
“Theoretically, greater racial diversity positively impacts all students by exposing them to people of various identities from divergent backgrounds,” Fischer said.
Fischer said he thought that by factoring in race, colleges make admissions a “zero-sum game” despite the intended merits of campus diversity. Affirmative action unequally affects “every racial group … as is explicitly evident in the case of discrimination against Asian-American applicants,” he added.
Students for Fair Admissions’ case against Harvard argues that the school’s admissions process intentionally discriminates against Asian-American applicants, holding them to a “far higher standard” for admission than applicants of other racial identities.
Alexandra Herrera ’23 explained that one argument against affirmative action that people often use is that it makes admissions difficult for Asian American applicants “even though they may have higher test scores or other merits … (compared to) applicants from perhaps historically-disadvantaged backgrounds.”
“Harvard College does not discriminate against applicants from any group in its admissions processes,” the website reads, pointing to an earlier U.S. District Court decision that ruled Harvard does not discriminate against Asian American applicants.
Beyond affirmative action’s ethical questions, Fischer said that he believes that race-conscious admissions may be unconstitutional under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlaws discrimination or exclusion based on “race, color or national origin.”
Herrera said she suspects that the Supreme Court will rule against affirmative action, also citing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.
The end of affirmative action could be “potentially dangerous considering how many efforts have been made to ensure greater representation of people of color” at colleges, said Niyanta Nepal ’25, a member of Students for Educational Equity.
A widespread commitment to test-optional policies could combat that loss of diversity, she said. A 2021 study showed that those policies led to a small increase in Pell Grant recipients and students from underrepresented backgrounds.
Universities should go test optional to “combat the (possible) decline in POC populations,” Nepal said.
“A lot of times, white people are primarily concentrated in education systems that have more access to resources,” she added. “Test-optional policies can place a sort of limit on those disparities.”
During October’s hearing, the court also discussed legacy admissions — preference in the application process for students with familial ties to a school. Nepal, Herrera, Fischer and Collins all separately said they support eliminating special consideration for legacy applicants.
Fischer said that while he does not believe schools will remove legacy status from their applicant evaluations, he still thinks the process is unfair.
“For admissions to be truly based in meritocratic ideals, I would support the elimination of legacy admissions … from the admissions process,” he said, “regardless of whether affirmative action is invalidated in college admissions.”
Clarification: A previous version of this article misrepresented Alexandra Herrera's explanation of an often-cited argument against affirmative action as her opinion on it. It also contained Herrera's affiliation to an organization she was not speaking on behalf of. The story has been updated and a quotation taken out of context has been removed.
Sofia Barnett is a University News editor overseeing the faculty and higher education beat. She is a junior from Texas studying history and English nonfiction and enjoys freelancing in her free time.