U.S. Supreme Court Cases Involving Race-Conscious Admission

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The United States Supreme Court is expected to rule by June 30, 2023, on the lawfulness of two race-conscious admission policies challenged in separate cases brought by Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina (UNC).

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Central issues:

  • Institution-specific facts—principally, in both cases, whether the consideration of race in each of the institutions’ admission policies is appropriately limited and nuanced; and whether each institution sufficiently considered and pursued all viable race-neutral strategies in lieu of its consideration of race in admission to achieve the educational benefits of diversity.
  • Irrespective of institution-specific facts, whether the court’s 45-year precedent that affirms the ability of postsecondary institutions to consider an applicant’s race as part of holistic review in admission to achieve the educational benefits of diversity will be significantly limited or overturned in its entirety.

Potential outcomes

Harvard and UNC prevailed in all lower court rulings, and the outcomes of the two cases are impossible to predict with certainty. However, most believe that this court did not take these cases (only six years after a key ruling in a similar case) to maintain the status quo.

Institution leaders are bracing for a potential retrenchment on or outright reversal of current court precedent that permits the limited consideration of race in admission to achieve the educational benefits of diversity. When engaging with stakeholders, consider emphasizing the following points:

  • Although most media coverage reflects predictions that “affirmative action is dead,” we cannot predict precise court outcomes. And, importantly, SFFA conceded in its briefs and in oral arguments that it was not claiming that applicants should not be able to share their full life’s story and perspectives as part of the application process—including with respect to issues of their racial identity. That concession could prove pivotal in the court’s ultimate resolution of the case.
  • Nothing in the record—or based on the precise arguments put forth by SFFA—should result in a court ruling that threatens the inherent integrity and value of mission-related institutional diversity, equity, and inclusion goals. Those issues are present in the pending cases only in the context of their role in justifying the consideration of race and/or ethnicity as factors in the admission processes of Harvard and UNC.
  • Working with other national organizations, NACAC will issue guidance to the field in the weeks following the court’s rulings to address specific questions about the meaning and implications of the court’s decision—for higher education enrollment leaders and for school counselors.

For further background on the cases, view the Meeting the Moment webinar from March 7, 2023, or review resources on NACAC’s webpage about the U.S. Supreme Court and race-conscious admission.