Banning Race-Conscious Admissions Won’t Change How Racism Shapes Educational Opportunities

EDITOR’S NOTE: The opinions in these essays are those of the author and are not necessarily the opinions of the American Institutes for Research (AIR), its staff, or its leadership. The AIR Equity Initiative is publishing this essay in its role as a convener of ideas and insights about topics that are relevant to its work and AIR’s mission. Return to main essays page: Is There a Path Forward? Affirmative Action in Higher Education After the Supreme Court’s Decision.


By W. Carson Byrd, Ph.D.

Carson Byrd

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in two affirmative action cases—pitting the Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina (UNC)—are part of a sustained effort to ban race-conscious policies and practices in college admissions. These lawsuits are also part of a larger attempt to solidify “colorblind” policy levers in American society, and led by Edward Blum, who was behind the dismantling of key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder case. As opponents to race-conscious admissions argue, considering an applicant’s race ruins the admissions review process by prioritizing non-meritocratic information. This in turn ends up penalizing Asian Americans applying to highly rejective institutions (i.e., those accepting fewer than 30% of all applicants). Such lawsuits are not new. The attempt to ban all forms of race-conscious admissions extends back to the 1970s, with the first major rollback of such policies and practices resulting from the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke case of 1978. This Supreme Court decision removed the ability of colleges and universities to use quotas for entering classes but also established the perspective that having a diverse college campus corresponds to educational benefits for students.

Nor is it new that supporters of race-neutral approaches to college admissions use racialized framing of who is considered worthy and meritorious for admissions to highly rejective, well-resourced universities. This racialized framing is notable in amicus briefs to the courts by plaintiffs, and oftentimes situates race-conscious admissions as a threat to the purportedly more meritorious white applicants and their families, who have enjoyed privileged access to well-resourced colleges such as Harvard and UNC across generations. This perspective is also poignantly found in research on the emergence of state-level affirmative action bans. Research documents how the declining enrollment of white students at public flagship universities is a key underlying factor for establishing such bans; again, attempting to protect white families’ access to well-resourced public universities. Moreover, such racialized framing bolsters the dangerous “model minority” myth of Asian Americans, who also benefit from race-conscious admissions policies.

Additional lawsuits may be pursued to further remove the consideration of race and racism in college admissions reviews raises concerns because of the decisions in these two cases. Readers may have noticed the inclusion of “racism” and not only “race” in the last sentence. Understanding the nuances of the SFFA cases and what is at stake by trying to fully ban race-conscious admissions hinges on discussing how racism influences educational opportunities beyond whether someone checks a box identifying with a racial or ethnic group.

Getting Rid of “Race” Doesn’t Get Rid of “Racism”

During oral arguments for both SFFA cases in October 2022, it became apparent that the SFFA lawyers mainly wanted to remove the ability for admissions staff to see the race and ethnicity of applicants. In their view, if someone checks a box on a college application form that they identify with a racially marginalized or minoritized group, then they receive an advantage in admissions reviews. The Common Application (Common App), a central college application system used by over 1,000 colleges and universities, recently noted they will not share the race and ethnicity information of applicants if, in light of these two cases, institutions decide to not receive such information.

However, a wealth of research consistently shows that the presumption of race operating as a determining factor in the decision to admit an applicant to college does not hold up in reality. In other words, simply checking a box to identify with a racial or ethnic group does not give an applicant an unequivocal advantage. Unless a college is “open access,” meaning they are nonselective in who is admitted, college admissions reviews take a holistic approach that considers each individual applicant’s experiences within the context of their homes, schools, and communities. Studies have found this contextual information improves admissions professionals’ evaluations of applicants.

We also must consider the varied policies emerging out of the COVID-19 pandemic, as more colleges and universities choose to operate test-optional or test-flexible admissions, allowing applicants to decide whether to include their test scores. This is considered one step toward greater equity in college admissions reviews, given that test scores are highly correlated with parental income, education, and wealth, and admissions tests have a long history of being designed to depress scores for students of color. Grades are also subject to racial biases among teachers. Even in diverse high schools with many resources for students, racial segregation of classes, including Advanced Placement classes, can occur. Thus, eliminating one segment of information does not get rid of how racism shapes the lives and educational trajectories of applicants.

If we move beyond grades and test scores, we can see how racism impacts educational opportunities and the extracurriculars that students use to build their college applications and show how well-rounded of an applicant they are. White parents use their power and privilege in suburban communities to shape schools’ and school boards’ decisions about increasing extracurricular opportunities and even reducing homework to position their children better in the competitive college admissions game. Emphasizing extracurricular activities including athletic pursuits in admissions reviews can advantage white, high socioeconomic status students, which race-neutral approaches to college admissions would amplify. These findings are further accentuated by a large-scale study of nearly six million college applications that identified substantially unequal extracurricular activities reported by applicants, reflecting persistent racial and socioeconomic inequalities in the ability to participate in such activities that race-neutral and test-optional or test-flexible policies do not address.

The Supreme Court’s elimination of aspects of race-conscious admissions leaves open another possibility of exacerbating racial inequality when considering students’ essay responses. In such essays, students commonly are asked to describe a situation in which they had to overcome adversity. Ongoing research uncovers how Black students feel they must share their trauma in such essays to have a stronger chance at admissions to these highly resourced colleges and universities.

SFFA’s lawyers admitted during the Supreme Court oral arguments last fall that it would be acceptable to consider how racism may have impacted a student’s life and educational journey or how they embrace their identification with particular racial or ethnic communities, but only if they describe it in their essays or is noted in other application materials, such as letters of recommendation from teachers. The Supreme Court’s decisions affirm this consideration in future admissions reviews as well. Thus, this further narrowing of admissions reviews will likely lead students of color to feel more strongly that they must put their trauma in the spotlight to be considered worthy of admission; to acknowledge their achievements despite the pain, heartache, and inequalities and injustices standing in their way to getting their applications on the desks in front of college admissions staff.

The Supreme Court’s decisions also set up a concerning opportunity for white students to utilize their essays for virtue signaling without true commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion. One approach would be writing about the diversity of their peer networks as exemplars for their commitments to diversity, which sounds admirable at first, but is akin to using people of color as racial capital for white advantages. My own research on students at highly-rejective colleges finds that not only are white students’ peer networks the most segregated when they first arrive on campus, but they become even more segregated by the time students graduate. Who they befriend, date, room with, and participate in student organizations with all present similar stories of student social interactions during college that will only become worse as these campuses will likely become whiter and wealthier following the Supreme Court’s decisions.

What the Supreme Court Decisions May Mean for Higher Education

Many people may ask what the impact of the Supreme Court’s decisions may mean for broader access to higher education and who is represented on college campuses across the US. The answer: Unequal access to higher education would increase, and racial diversity would decrease, most notably at well-resourced colleges and universities and those who operate highly rejective admissions.

The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce found that race-neutral alternatives often fail to maintain racial diversity on college campuses and that few of those options would likely lead to increases in racial diversity. Race-neutral approaches not only significantly impacted the racial diversity in the University of California system, but also decreased the educational and social mobility opportunities across the state of California, after a 1998 state referendum banned particular uses of race-conscious admissions. When reviewing other research on the impacts of such bans, a recurring finding exists: Without race-conscious admissions, both racial diversity and socioeconomic diversity decreases in undergraduate, graduate, and medical school admissions, facilitating a further segregation of postsecondary opportunities for generations of students and families. Much like the research noted throughout this essay, my own ongoing research also finds that intersectional inequalities persist under bans of race-conscious admissions for what majors students pursue and their experiences in those degree programs, highlighting how racism intertwines with sexism and classism to impact student opportunities and possibilities for social mobility and achieving their dreams.

Lastly, these cases are specifically about admissions policies and practices, not broader diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts on campuses. These efforts have been targeted by state legislators across the U.S. in recent years and already have resulted in a chilling effect on college campuses. There is a serious concern that the Supreme Court’s decisions will result in universities pulling back their campus equity efforts given the broader sociopolitical contexts, which many already have done so prior to these decisions. Doing so drastically impacts the college experiences, learning opportunities, and support for students from varying backgrounds.


This year marks the 20th anniversary of the pivotal decisions Grutter and Gratz versus the University of Michigan that circumscribed university efforts to use race-conscious admissions while reaffirming the educational benefits of diversity. The Supreme Court’s decisions against Harvard and UNC nearly completes a self-fulling prophecy of the courts following former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s predicted 25-year “sunset” for such policies. Do these decisions prevent future lawsuits against colleges and universities regarding their admission policies and practices? Simply put, no. If anything, it may only increase the number of lawsuits because of the misinterpretation of what holistic admissions reviews do and how admissions staff make their decisions. Moreover, as described above, how far universities go to prevent backlash to discussing race and racism at all through other diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts could make the racial equity and justice issues in higher education worse beyond college access.

What the research clearly shows is that bans of race-conscious admissions do not bring us closer to the ideals of more equitable, inclusive, and just college campuses. Race-neutral policies make it more difficult to tackle persistent racial disparities to achieve those ideals, and so do pulling back commitments to support students’ engagement with the history and contemporary reality of how racism shapes life chances once they arrive on campus. As Justice Sotomayor wrote in her dissent: “Ignoring race will not equalize a society that is racially unequal. What was true in the 1860s, and again in 1954, is true today: Equality requires acknowledgement of inequality.” Colleges and universities must now turn inward and ask themselves how strong their convictions for racial equity and justice are and how turning away from such convictions also substantially undercuts their ability to fulfill their missions and ideals of being an educational space for all as the limited tool they have relied on for decades to diversify their campuses has been worn down further.

W. Carson Byrd is an associate research scientist in the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Behind the Diversity Numbers: Achieving Racial Equity on Campus; Poison in the Ivy: Race Relations and the Reproduction of Inequality on Elite College Campuses; and co-editor of Intersectionality and Higher Education: Identity and Inequality on College Campuses. Previously, Byrd was associate professor of sociology at the University of Louisville.