By: Nathaniel Greene, Community & Culture Reporter

Last summer, a historic Supreme Court ruling reversed decades of precedent, ending the ability of colleges and universities—both public and private—to consider race as one of the many factors in deciding which qualified applicants to admit. This decision marked a significant shift in the landscape of higher education, leaving institutions and students alike grappling with its implications. As the dust settled, a tumultuous year in college admissions followed, characterized by an uptick in applications from nonwhite students and a problematic rollout of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), plagued by delays and glitches, which are expected to significantly impact the enrollment of students of color.

At a June 28 briefing hosted by Ethnic Media Services, experts and advocates came together to discuss these developments, the trends they are observing, and the future of higher education in this new reality. The panel included John C. Yang, President and Executive Director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC); Thomas A. Saenz, President and General Counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF); Jin Hee Lee, Director for Strategic Initiatives at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF); and Dr. Vikash Reddy, Vice President of Research at The Campaign for College Opportunity.


Challenges and Changes

Reddy opened the discussion by highlighting the significant challenges posed by the FAFSA rollout, stating, “The FAFSA delays and glitches have significantly impacted students’ ability to make informed decisions about their college enrollment.”

He emphasized that many institutions had to delay their deadlines for students to submit their intent to enroll due to these issues, creating uncertainty about the composition of the incoming classes.

“This has been particularly challenging for students from minoritized backgrounds who are more likely to need financial aid to attend college,” he added.

Reddy also noted the broader implications of the Supreme Court decision, pointing out that it has led to increased legislative activity targeting diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs, remarking, “According to the Education Trust, in 2023 alone, 45 bills were introduced into state legislatures across the nation targeting DEI programs.”

These legislative efforts, particularly in states like Texas and Florida, have resulted in significant setbacks for DEI initiatives, further complicating the landscape for students of color.

Yang reflected on the broader societal impacts of the Supreme Court’s decision.

“The decision has had seismic impacts, not just on college admissions but on our broader societal efforts towards racial equity.” He expressed concern that the ruling is being used by conservatives to undermine DEI initiatives across various sectors. “These attacks extend beyond the scope of the decision and are very dangerous.”

Yang also addressed the myth of the “model minority,” explaining, “The notion that Asian Americans do not benefit from affirmative action is a harmful myth. Studies show that Asian Americans are underrepresented in executive positions and face significant barriers to advancement.”

He stressed that the decision would harm all communities of color, not just specific groups, and called for continued advocacy to address these inequities.

Lee emphasized the limited scope of the Supreme Court’s ruling.

“The ruling was meant to address the consideration of race in higher education admissions alone. It was never intended to impact DEI programs or other efforts to promote racial equality,” she said, then highlighted the ripple effects of the decision, particularly in employment and scholarship programs.

Lee criticized the false narrative that affirmative action creates a zero-sum game.

“The larger issue is the persistent racial inequalities in our society. College admissions, education, and employment should never be seen as zero-sum games,” she said, while pointing out the long-standing barriers faced by marginalized communities and stressing the importance of continued efforts to address these disparities.

Saenz provided a legal analysis of the current situation, emphasizing that institutions must continue to collect data on race and ethnicity to comply with federal regulations.

“Failing to collect this data violates obligations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” he asserted. Saenz also highlighted the need for institutions to allow students to discuss their experiences with race and racial discrimination in their admissions essays, as mandated by the Supreme Court’s decision.

Saenz warned against the overextension of the ruling, particularly the elimination of support centers and ethnic studies programs.

“These centers and supports, so long as they are open to all, are lawful and should continue,” he stated.

He also discussed the complexities surrounding race-based scholarships, explaining that pooled resources and the individual consideration of race in awarding scholarships remain lawful.

Looking Forward

As the experts noted, the full impact of the Supreme Court’s decision on college admissions and beyond is still unfolding. Institutions are navigating a complex landscape of legal, social, and administrative challenges as they seek to maintain diversity and equity in their admissions processes. The issues surrounding FAFSA delays further complicate the situation, particularly for students from low-income and minority backgrounds.

The panelists agreed on the need for continued advocacy and innovative solutions to ensure equal access to educational opportunities.

As Saenz concluded, “We must look to our universities to restore equal educational opportunity by fulfilling their legal obligations and exploring alternative criteria for admissions that minimize discriminatory effects.”