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A Year of Change: Reflections After the Reversal of Affirmative Action by the Supreme Court

-Editorial

The historic ruling last summer reversed decades of precedent, ending the ability of colleges and universities—public and private—to consider race as one of the many factors in deciding which qualified applicants are admitted.

As the dust cleared in the post-decision shock, a tumultuous year in college admissions followed: partial-year data shows more applications by nonwhite students earlier than ever. But this trend was somewhat overshadowed by the disappointing rollout of the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), plagued by delays and glitches, which is likely to have a major impact on enrollment of students of color.

The new reality is still to emerge clearly, but experts and advocates will discuss the trends they are seeing, how higher education institutions are adapting, and what the future holds at a moment when American confidence in Higher Education hits a historic low.

Vikash Reddy, Vice President of Research at the Campaign for College Opportunity, highlighted ongoing challenges and impacts on higher education access during a recent address. “Our organization champions access and success in higher education for underrepresented groups, advocating for racial equity in a state policy and legal climate shaped by Proposition 209,” Reddy stated.

Reddy emphasized the disruptions caused by the FAFSA delays, impacting college admissions and enrollment decisions. “Many colleges and universities had to delay their deadlines due to these delays, and we simply don’t know yet who the incoming classes will be,” he explained.

He also addressed broader impacts beyond admissions, pointing to a “chilling effect” on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs. “In 2023 alone, 45 bills targeting DEI programs were introduced in state legislatures, notably in Texas and Florida,” Reddy noted.

Despite these challenges, Reddy highlighted proactive measures, such as holistic admissions processes and efforts to eliminate legacy admissions, as ways to ensure equitable access to higher education. He pointed to successes at UCLA and UC Berkeley, which have seen some of the most diverse classes in recent years.

Reddy concluded by stressing the need for continuous advocacy for inclusive policies and practices at all educational levels, ensuring campuses affirm students’ sense of belonging and reflect their diverse experiences.

John C. Yang, President and Executive Director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, AAJC, highlighted significant concerns over recent Supreme Court decisions. 

Yang, representing the organization based in Washington, D.C., emphasized the mission of advancing the civil and human rights of Asian Americans and advocating for a fair and equitable society for all. Yang expressed gratitude to key partners such as Tom Saenz of Maldef and Jin Hilly of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund for their collaboration in various affirmative action battles, including landmark decisions involving the University of Michigan and the University of Texas.

Reflecting on recent Supreme Court rulings, Yang lamented the Court’s decisions that he believes could hinder progress and justice in the United States. He criticized a decision that he claims reverses four decades of precedent and limits federal agencies’ regulatory powers. Furthermore, Yang expressed concern over the Court’s actions regarding the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which he believes disproportionately impacts voters of color.

Yang raised alarm over the Court’s decisions in important cases such as Roe v. Wade, noting the overturning of over fifty years of precedent. These developments, according to Yang, have significant implications for ongoing conversations surrounding crucial legal and social issues.

Thomas A. Saenz, President and General Counsel of MALDEF, highlighted critical issues impacting admissions policies across the United States. Saenz emphasized the ongoing legal complexities surrounding race and ethnicity considerations in admissions, following recent Supreme Court decisions.

“I want to thank all of the panelists who have given us a very strong sense of where the situation is today,” Saenz remarked at the onset, acknowledging the diverse perspectives shared during the discussion.

Saenz pointed out the diversion caused by efforts to extend recent court rulings beyond their intended scope. “We have been diverted intentionally by that effort to expand this decision well beyond what the justices decided,” he stated, addressing challenges to diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in higher education.

Concerning data collection, Saenz underscored its legal significance. “It is wrong under the law for institutions to cease collecting data on race and ethnicity in the admissions process,” he asserted, citing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The discussion extended to the permissible scope of race-based scholarships. Saenz clarified that while individual scholarships can consider race as part of pooled funding, they must not exclude applicants based solely on race. He emphasized MALDEF’s commitment to diversity in scholarship awards while adhering to legal guidelines.

Saenz also addressed the impact of recent FAFSA reforms on minority and low-income students. “The effect has been extreme,” he noted, urging federal intervention to mitigate barriers to student aid access.

He reiterated the importance of upholding legal standards in higher education admissions. “We are still a nation governed by the rule of law,” he affirmed, urging universities to align admissions practices with legal obligations to ensure equal opportunity.

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