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The Supreme Court’s Affirmative Action Ruling and How Schools Can Maintain a Diverse Study Body


Sunday, July 2nd, 2023


This week’s core story is about: Affirmative action in higher education.


The Supreme Court delivered its most consequential decisions of the term. The Court blocked President Joe Biden’s plan to cancel some student debt, ended affirmative action in higher education (more below), and permitted a designer to withhold her services from gay people based on a fictitious request. It also rejected a case testing police liability shields and blocked a dangerous, fringe legal concept known as the “independent state legislature theory.”

Ukraine reportedly recaptured territory in its eastern Donbas region that Russia has held since 2014. The U.K.’s Defense Ministry announced this week it was “highly likely” that Ukrainian forces had recaptured land near the Russian-occupied village of Krasnohorivka as part of its ongoing counteroffensive. The land was taken by Russia after it illegally annexed the southern Crimean peninsula in 2014.

A professor and three other people were stabbed during a “hate-motivated” attack on a gender studies class at the University of Waterloo in Canada. Waterloo police arrested a former student suspected of the attack, telling reporters the ex-student carried out the "planned and targeted attack motivated by hate related to gender expression and gender identity.”

Nationwide riots erupted in France after police shot and killed a 17-year-old during a traffic stop. Around 2,400 people have been arrested during the protests, with French officials planning to deploy 45,000 police officers to the streets nationwide to quell the unrest.

The Supreme Court’s Affirmative Action Ruling and How Schools Can Maintain a Diverse Study Body

A satirical cartoon by Mike Luckovich for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Mike Luckovich

Our nation’s high court did away with race-based affirmative action in higher education this week, eliminating policies that allowed universities to consider an applicant’s race and ethnicity in its admissions programs. Experts say affirmative action policies help minority students gain entry to selective universities, but Americans appear mixed on whether the policies should stand.

So, what does the research say about race-conscious admissions policies in higher education? And how can schools maintain a diverse student body after the Supreme Court’s ruling?

What’s happening:

The Supreme Court had itself one hell of a week. In a term sickened by embarrassing approval ratings and ethics impropriety, the Court closed the festivities by dispensing several controversial decisions the effects of which will be felt for decades.

In one case, Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, the justices examined race-based affirmative action policies (also called “race-conscious admission policies”) at Harvard and the University of North Carolina, finding the schools’ admissions programs violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause by unfairly discriminating against white and Asian applicants.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority:

“[T]he Harvard and UNC admissions programs cannot be reconciled with the guarantees of the Equal Protection Clause. Both programs lack sufficiently focused and measurable objectives warranting the use of race, unavoidably employ race in a negative manner, involve racial stereotyping, and lack meaningful end points.

We have never permitted admissions programs to work in that way, and we will not do so today.”

Justice Roberts then permitted admissions programs at our nation’s military academies to work in exactly that way, exempting them from the ruling “in light of the potentially distinct interests that military academies may present.”

The decision means schools across the country will no longer be able to consider an applicant’s race or ethnicity as part of a holistic review process, though they’re allowed to consider how race has impacted an applicant’s life through other means (more on that below).

Legal experts weren’t exactly surprised by the decision, since overturning affirmative action in admissions has long been a goal of conservative groups, and with the Court’s current makeup, those groups are reaping the fruits of their labor and millions of dollars.

However, before we dive into the research and options available to schools to maintain diversity, let’s talk about what affirmative action actually is and how it works.

Race-based affirmative action policies permit universities to consider an applicant’s race in admissions programs, allowing schools seeking a diverse student body to admit certain students to help meet that goal. The policies have their roots in Reconstruction, but mainly stem from the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s.

President Lyndon B. Johnson laid out the intellectual and moral imperative for the policies in 1965 during a commencement address at Howard University:

“You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.

Thus, it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.

This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability. Not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and equality as a result.”

Affirmative action policies are often misinterpreted as “racial quotas,” which were banned in 1978 when the Supreme Court found them to be unconstitutional, and it’s commonly believed that most universities use affirmative action, which isn’t the case. In reality, the policies are used by only a small number of highly selective schools, since most institutions accept most students that apply and therefore don’t need to use race as a consideration.

A 2019 analysis by the Pew Research Center found of the roughly 1,360 four-year institutions in the U.S., only 17 admitted fewer than 10% of applicants, including Stanford, Harvard, and Yale. These highly selective and competitive schools often receive applicants with identical academic records and test scores, so they use affirmative action policies to further their missions of valuing a diverse student body and creating opportunities for students from all backgrounds.

Some people also incorrectly believe that affirmative action policies somehow let unqualified minority students gain entry to elite universities at the expense of qualified white students.

Here’s what right-wing “comedian” Tim Young had to say on Twitter:

A tweet by @TimRunsHisMouth on Twitter incorrectly describing Harvard’s admissions program as racist.


First, let’s note that Young is not an expert (nor a funny person) and doesn’t have an informed opinion on the issue. Second, let’s note that what he said isn’t true and he’s either willfully or ignorantly misinterpreting data.

Young is referring to a chart shared by Students for Fair Admissions in the Supreme Court case at issue:

A screenshot of a graph showing admission rates for the top decile shared by Students for Fair Admissions in its petition to the Supreme Court.

Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard

At first glance, it does appear that Harvard admits more Black students in the top decile (the top row of the chart), however, these figures are only percentages. As economist Jessica Burbank explained on Twitter, of course the figure for Black students is higher because there are fewer Black students in the top decile:

The reasons why more white students end up in the top decile vary, but, according to Burbank, it essentially comes down to the funding schools in predominantly white areas get versus that of schools in predominantly Black and brown areas. We’re not going to tackle that issue today, but if you’d like to learn more, I suggest following Burbank on Twitter.

So, with our understanding of what affirmative action actually is and the truth behind some common misperceptions, let’s go over what the research says about race-conscious admissions policies in higher education, and how schools can maintain a diverse student body after the Supreme Court’s ruling.

What the research says:

A recent study by researchers at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) simulated what would happen if schools weren’t allowed to consider race in their admissions policies, finding a national ban would decrease racial and ethnic diversity at selective colleges unless the schools “fundamentally altered their admissions practices,” including ending legacy admissions and athletic recruitment.

Since that alteration is unlikely, the team found selective colleges under a national ban will almost certainly become less racially and ethnically diverse than they are today, and will be “extremely unlikely” to enroll student bodies that match the demographic diversity of the incoming high school class.

The researchers found selective schools could make up some of the difference through “class-conscious admissions practices” (discussed further below), but maintaining or exceeding current levels of diversity would be nearly impossible.

“Our models make one thing very clear: the most effective way of increasing socioeconomic diversity at selective colleges is to consider race in the admissions process, not to ignore it,” said lead author Anthony P. Carnevale.

The findings are in line with a 2020 study by researchers at the University of Washington, which found the nine states that banned affirmative action policies beginning in the mid-1990s experienced “persistent declines in the share of underrepresented minorities” admitted to and enrolling in the states’ public flagship universities after the policies were ended.

Why it matters:

So, what can schools do now to maintain diversity? Some initiatives have shown promise, but researchers believe the impacts are relatively small and not as effective as simply permitting race-conscious admissions policies.

“Class-conscious” and race-neutral approaches to admissions vary in practice and aren’t tracked in an organized way, so there’s no formal count of their implementation or success.

However, schools in states that have banned affirmative action do have options and experts say we can expect to see more of these roll out in the future. Here are three common race-neutral approaches to admissions:

  • Giving preference to applicants from lower socioeconomic backgrounds: This allows schools to use a family’s income, occupations, and education levels in the admissions process, which are often closely linked with an applicant’s race and ethnicity.

  • Expanding recruitment and increasing scholarships: Officials often target applicants who are the first in their family to attend college and/or come from high schools in low-income areas. Schools can improve enrollment among these students by increasing the number and dollar amount of available scholarships.

  • Introducing a “top percent” program: California, Florida, and Texas each have programs guaranteeing high school students who graduate within a top percentage of their class a seat at one of their state’s public universities. This allows schools to capitalize on any existing racial and ethnic differences among the states’ high schools.

The success of these and other race-neutral admissions programs remains to be seen. The above-mentioned studies by Georgetown’s CEW and the University of Washington suggest the policies are only moderately successful, and, in any case, pale in comparison to actually allowing schools to consider race in admissions.

The American public does seem to understand there’s at least some need for class-conscious approaches to admissions, with one survey by The Washington Post finding 62% of Americans believe students from low-income families have an unfair disadvantage in getting into good schools.

At the same time, more recent polling shows Americans are actually all over the place on the issue.

A May survey by AP-NORC found – somewhat paradoxically – that 63% of Americans said the Supreme Court should not block schools from considering race in admissions, while 68% also said race and ethnicity shouldn’t be a significant factor in the process, preferring measures like grades and standardized test scores.

A June survey by the Pew Research Center found 50% of Americans disapprove of selective universities considering race in admissions, while 33% approve. Perhaps illustratively, the survey also found respondents were nearly three times more likely to say they strongly disapproved of using race in admissions (29%) as they were to say they strongly approved (11%).

No matter what Americans think, experts have made it clear that this ruling will likely lead to fewer racial and ethnic minorities at our nation’s selective universities, ensuring our most elite student bodies are whiter, wealthier, and less diverse than before.

To drive it home, I’ll leave you with the words of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson in her dissent:

“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.

And having so detached itself from this country’s actual past and present experiences, the Court has now been lured into interfering with the crucial work that UNC and other institutions of higher learning are doing to solve America’s real-world problems.

No one benefits from ignorance. 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.”


The Donnie Creek wildfire burning in northeast British Columbia.

British Columbia Wildfire Service

Canada’s Ongoing Wildfire Season Is Officially the Worst on Record

Canada’s current wildfire season has become the worst in the country’s history, with at least 500 active fires – around half of which are considered “out of control” – burning more than 19.5 million acres so far, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center.

  • The fires have generated nearly 600 million tonnes of carbon dioxide since May, equivalent to around 88% of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions from all sources in 2021, according to the E.U.’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service.



Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville speaking to reporters.


The Marines Won’t Have a Confirmed Commandant for the First Time in 164 Years Because Sen. Tommy Tuberville Is Still Blocking Military Confirmations

The Marine Corps is set to be led by an acting commandant for the first time since 1859 when current commandant, Gen. David Berger, retires this month, all thanks to one lawmaker: Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville (AL).

  • Tuberville, an overrated ex-college football coach who never won a national title, has been on a monthslong lone crusade to block military confirmations, originally saying he was blocking confirmations to protest the military policy providing paid leave for members who get abortions, before switching his purported reasoning to a belief that the military has too many generals and admirals.



The Google office in Ontario, Canada.


Google Said It Will Remove Canadian News Links in Its Online Products

Google announced it will stop sharing Canadian news links in its Search, News, and Discovery products, citing the country’s new so-called “link tax,” which requires companies to pay content fees to Canadian publishers for sharing news links. Google plans to stop sharing the links once the new law officially takes effect.

  • Google described the law as an “unprecedented decision” that exposes the company to “uncapped financial liability simply for facilitating Canadians’ access to news from Canadian publishers.”


Americans Overwhelmingly Favor Taxing the Rich to Reduce the National Deficit

A new survey by Navigator Research found, by a 75-point margin, Americans prefer to reduce the national deficit by raising taxes on wealthy individuals and companies (82%), including closing tax loopholes, rather than by cutting programs like Social Security and Medicare (7%).

  • The support is consistent across political parties, with 92% of Democrats, 74% of Republicans, and 72% of independents favoring taxing the rich over cutting social programs (3% of Democrats, 11% of Republicans, and 9% of independents).


Low-Frequency Gravitational Waves Are Distorting the Fabric of Physical Reality

A new study by an international team of researchers confirms what scientists have long predicted: gravity is slowly shrinking and expanding everything around us, including our own bodies, through a “weird, spacetime-warping effect of gravitational waves” as they pass through our galaxy.

  • Without getting lost in the weeds, the researchers observed the first evidence of “the gravitational wave background,” what the researchers describe as “a sort of soup of spacetime distortions pervading the entire universe and long predicted to exist by scientists.” The researchers believe the waves are caused by distant pairs of close-orbiting, ultra-massive black holes.


An International Team of Scientists Revealed the First Image of Our Milky Way Based on “Ghost Particles”

A new study by an international team of researchers revealed a first-of-its-kind image of the Milky Way, observing the galaxy through the various frequencies emitted by electromagnetic radiation rather than light. To capture the image, the researchers determined the “galactic origin of thousands of neutrinos,” also known as “ghost particles,” which typically pass through the Earth undetected.

  • Speaking of the moment the image was produced, study author Naoko Kurahashi Neilson recalled, “I remember saying, 'At this point in human history, we're the first ones to see our galaxy in anything other than light.’” See the image.


  • $200 billion - The amount of federal COVID relief funds that may have been distributed to “fraudulent actors,” according to a new report from the inspector general of the Small Business Administration. The figure represents around 17% of the total $1.2 trillion dispersed by the SBA during the pandemic.

  • $887 million - The box office receipts generated by Elton John’s five-year epic farewell tour, Farewell Yellow Brick Road, making it the highest-grossing concert tour of all time. When the tour ends next month, Elton will have played more than 300 shows in 20 different countries for some 5.7 million attendees.


Long Video. Why is Japan’s internet designed so bizarrely? (15 min)

Short Video. Tech billionaire Sergey Brin is building a secret airship. (7 min)

Fun Video. Learn how Wes Anderson uses miniatures in his filmmaking. (10 min)

Good Read. Taking a holistic look at the famous trolley problem. (1,272 words; 6 min)


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Written by Ryan Wittler