The Supreme Court’s decision Thursday against race-conscious admissions upended decades of policies that higher education institutions have used to admit students and diversify their campuses — and will leave educators and high school counselors navigating new waters as they guide students through the college application process.
In their opinions in the highly controversial 6-3 ruling, justices on both sides of the ideological divide cited the goal of eliminating racial discrimination in the college admissions process.
On one side, the conservative majority said race-conscious admissions leads to stereotyping as well as discrimination, such as against Asian Americans and White students.
"Many universities have for too long wrongly concluded that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned, but the color of their skin," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the 237-page ruling. "This Nation’s constitutional history does not tolerate that choice."
But in a dissent, Justice Ketanji Jackson rebutted that dismantling race-conscious admissions would worsen racism experienced by Black Americans, among others.
"With let-them-eat-cake obliviousness, today, the majority pulls the ripcord and announces 'colorblindness for all' by legal fiat. But deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life," Jackson said. "Although formal racelinked legal barriers are gone, race still matters to the lived experiences of all Americans in innumerable ways, and today’s ruling makes things worse, not better."
Early reaction in the K-12 community was not divided, however, as educators, lawmakers and organizations instead largely urged public schools to do their part in counteracting the ruling.
Critics call on K-12 to counteract the decision
A number of public education and civil rights advocacy groups denounced the decision as reversing progress in college admissions. They said they hoped race-conscious admissions would help level the playing field for Black, Hispanic and Indigenous students who have historically been disadvantaged when it comes to postsecondary education access.
"With this decision, the Supreme Court has reinforced those barriers," said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, in a statement. "Affirmative action and programs like it expand higher education opportunities to those who have been historically denied a fair shot."
Now, the end of race-conscious admissions could lead to a 10% drop in Black and Hispanic enrollment at some higher education institutions, according to estimates from a California State University, Sacramento, study from 2009 based on similar state bans of the practice. Nine states ban race-conscious policies.
Pringle called on K-12 schools to "redouble their efforts to ensure that our educational institutions support all students equally and equitably."
Ruling increases pressure on K-12 schools
The role that public schools can play in guiding students from marginalized backgrounds into college despite Thursday's decision was a common thread across reactions.
The ruling will increase pressure on K-12 schools — especially those in urban and rural areas — to develop a college-going culture, said Leslie Williams, a higher and postsecondary education lecturer at Columbia University's Teachers College.
Williams, whose expertise includes access and equity in higher education, gave a few examples of how districts can achieve that:
- Hiring and retaining school leaders who understand college and career readiness.
- Having school leaders who can articulate and implement the necessary policies and practices to ensure all students are prepared for college success when they graduate.
- Hiring teachers who can offer high-quality college prep academic courses.
- Ensuring both school leaders and teachers have a "sociocultural knowledge" of the students and communities they serve.
- Developing or expanding pipeline programs to the teaching profession and explicitly targeting minority and low-income communities in ways that are legally allowed.
- Increasing incentives, compensation and opportunities for professional development and growth.
- Hiring and retaining an adequate number of school counselors and college advisors who can help students select courses that prepare them for the right college.
Harry Feder, a former public school teacher and executive director of FairTest, said "efforts to de-emphasize standardized exam scores in admissions and financial aid must accelerate." The organization advocates for test-optional admissions.
Feder said high school counselors can help by:
- Removing standardized test scores on transcripts, which can correlate with students' race.
- Ensuring that other contextual information about availability of AP, International Baccalaureate, and similar programs at the school is included in information sent to colleges.
- Helping students understand how different colleges and universities evaluate applicants.
How will colleges evaluate students’ raced-based experiences within the new ruling’s confines? That’s what the education community, including those in K-12, will need to figure out.
Angel Pérez, chief executive of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, noted that the Common Application, an online portal for applying to more than 1,000 colleges, allows institutions to include short answer questions.
Colleges could devise a question for that section that speaks to students’ “lived experiences,” he said. “We’re not 100% sure yet,” Pérez said.
In the interim, Pérez said it will assist its membership, composed of high school counselors and college admissions professionals, with navigating the ruling’s complexities. NACAC will host a series of events to discuss its parameters, he said. Pérez said high school counselors in particular are worried about advising students on college programs designed to benefit marginalized students, like those who are Black or Latino.
"I think high school teachers and counselors will need to be sure to develop their own understanding of diversity and equity and their value in educational settings," said Williams. He added that counselors should also help develop students' voices through classroom assignments so they can discuss their identities and diversity in ways that can compel admissions officers.
Latinos for Education, a national education non-profit, also urged colleges that are not open access to move toward a holistic admissions process that takes into consideration students' lived experiences, as allowed under Thursday's decision.
The Education Department also wants to help. It said in a statement Thursday in response to the ruling that it plans to, along with the U.S. Department of Justice, offer colleges a listing of lawful admissions practices within the next 45 days.
By September, the Education Department is to produce a report outlining strategies for boosting campus “diversity and educational opportunity,” it said in Thursday’s statement. The agency also said it will mull over whether it can gather and publish more enrollment data, such as that “disaggregated by race and ethnicity, first-generation status, legacy status.”
“I want to send a message to all aspiring students, especially Black, Latino, Asian American, Native American, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, and other students from underserved communities: we see you and we need you,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement Thursday. “Do not let this ruling deter you from pursuing your educational potential.”