The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in two cases that could end affirmative action in college admissions and legally compel colleges to reconstruct admissions policies, including for applicants who play sports.
Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), a nonprofit advocacy group, contends in lawsuits that Harvard and UNC Chapel Hill violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which makes it illegal for colleges to discriminate or deny benefits on account of race, color, or national origin. The lawsuits argue that the schools do explicitly favor, and disfavor, applicants based on race and reject what SFFA says are race-neutral alternatives. The schools insist they have compelling interests in student body diversity and that their race-conscious admission policies are narrowly tailored to obtain that goal. Harvard and UNC also draw from Supreme Court precedent, including Grutter v. Bollinger, a 2003 decision in which the Court held that schools may consider an applicant’s membership in an “underrepresented minority group” so long as other factors are considered.
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The schools have won in lower courts but face challenging odds at the Supreme Court, where several justices have previously expressed skepticism about affirmative action.
Harvard’s admissions policy reveals the role of race in admissions and its relationship to athletics. Each applicant is assigned a score ranging from “1” at the high end to “6” on six dimensions: academic, extracurricular, athletic, school support, personal and overall. In addition, applicants are awarded “tips” or “plus factors” for their race and ethnicity; legacy status; being the child of faculty or staff; and being a recruited athlete. A recruited athlete is ordinarily assigned a “1” for athletic while a “2” would reflect an applicant who, though not recruited, could potentially play for the Crimson. According to data in court documents, 86% of applicants who receive a “1” for athletic are accepted, a higher percentage than those earning “1” in other categories.
This system, SFAA contends, leads to Black and Hispanic applicants receiving better odds for admissions than other applicants, particularly Asian American applicants.
“Applicants with the same ‘academic index’ [a metric drawn from SAT scores and GPA and is reported to the Ivy Athletic League] had widely different admissions rates by race,” SFFA’s brief states. “An Asian American in the fourth-lowest decile has virtually no chance of being admitted to Harvard (0.9%); but an African American in that decile has a higher chance of admission (12.8%) than an Asian American in the top decile (12.7%).”
SFFA says Harvard could achieve diversity goals by eliminating preferences for race and for children of donors, alumni or faculty and staff, and applying a “socioeconomic boost” that would be roughly one-half the size of the preference for recruited athletes. SFFA says such a system would enlarge combined Black and Hispanic admissions, increase Asian American admissions and decrease white admissions. Meanwhile, SFFA claims, GPA would hold steady and SAT scores would “fall only slightly to the 98th percentile.”
Harvard has rejected these types of changes to its admissions policies. The university insists it does not “pursue quotas” and instead strives to offer “educational benefits that flow from bringing together racially diverse students in classes, dining halls, extracurricular activities, athletics, and campus-wide events.” In proceedings, Harvard has stressed that many athletes have diverse backgrounds and that the famed Harvard-Yale football game is one way of building community.
The role of race in admissions of athletes has been discussed in amicus briefs submitted to the court. A brief submitted by “legal scholars defending race-conscious admissions,” notes that “75% of recruited athletes are white” and they “tend to be wealthy.” The brief draws from a Journal of Labor Economics study titled, “Legacy and Athlete Preferences at Harvard.” The study finds that “recruited athletes at Harvard tend to be [economically] advantaged and disproportionately white in part because of the varsity sports Harvard offers, including fencing, sailing, and skiing.” The legal scholars maintain that remedying an alleged Asian American bias in Harvard’s admissions ought to be focused not on Black or Hispanic applicants but rather on how “Harvard’s Legacy+ preferences reward less qualified white applicants for their inherited race and class privilege.”
The UNC case raises similar issues, with recruited athletes and other groups gaining advantages. Former Duke men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma and nearly 350 other head basketball coaches submitted an amicus brief in favor of Harvard and UNC. The coaches warn that if the Supreme Court deems the use of race in admissions illegal, “student athletes will be especially harmed” as “college-athletics programs [would become] isolated and stereotyped enclaves of diversity.”
The Court will issue decisions on the two cases by next summer.
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