The NCSL Blog

26

By Lisa Soronen

In Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolinathe U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether to overturn Grutter v. Bollinger (2003).

us supreme courtIn that case, the Supreme Court held that institutions of higher education may rely on a narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further the compelling interest of achieving a diverse student body without violating the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause or Title VI (which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in programs receiving federal financial assistance).

If the court doesn’t overturn Grutter, Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) asks it to rule that Harvard’s and the University of North Carolina’s use of race in the admissions process isn’t narrowly tailored. 

Harvard’s admissions process involves multiple steps. A first-reader rates applicants based on six factors including academics, extracurriculars and a personal rating. Race may be a factor in any of the next steps. Applicants are then given an overall rating, interviewed, considered by a subcommittee, and then a full committee. Harvard also provides “tips” for race and other qualities and for athletes, legacy applicants, dean’s interest applicants, and children of faculty or staff.

SFFA argues that Harvard’s use of race discriminates against Asian Americans. The 1st Circuit disagreed. First, SFFA claims in its petition asking the court to hear this case, that Harvard gives Asian Americans a statistically significant lower personal rating than white students despite a lack of evidence “Asian-American applicants actually have less desirable personal qualities.”

Second, SFFA claims Harvard engages in unconstitutional racial balancing because the number of students admitted in underrepresented racial categories doesn’t vary much from year to year and admissions officers consult “ethic stats” throughout the process to avoid “a dramatic drop-off in some group [from] last year.” Third, SFFA argues that Harvard is “obsessed with race” and uses it as more than a plus factor in admissions.

Finally, SFFA argues that Harvard has ignored workable race-neutral alternatives. SFFA suggests Harvard “eliminates its preferences for the white and wealthy and increases its preference for the socioeconomically disadvantaged. This simulation would achieve greater racial diversity without using race. And it would achieve something that Harvard currently lacks: socioeconomic diversity.”

According to SFFA, its suggestion isn’t “unworkable” just because “Harvard might see changes to its desired racial percentages, dips in its record-breaking endowment, or negligible differences in chosen majors and SAT scores.”

The University of North Carolina’s admissions process involves readers making a provisional decision about an applicant which a committee then reviews. The reviewer considers academic, extracurricular, personal, and other factors. Race may be a plus factor.  

If the Supreme Court doesn’t overrule Grutter SFFA asks the Court to decide whether the University of North Carolina may “reject a race-neutral alternative because it would change the composition of the student body, without proving that the alternative would cause a dramatic sacrifice in academic quality or the educational benefits of overall student-body diversity.

The district court considered at length a number of race-neutral alternatives and concluded the “University has shown that there are not any available, workable, or sufficient [race-neutral alternatives] that would allow it to achieve its diversity goals.”

In its petition asking the court to hear this case, SFFA suggested a long list of additional race-neutral alternatives which it claims won’t require a “dramatic sacrifice” of diversity or academic excellence.

According to SFFA the question in this case is whether race-neutral alternatives could promote a “substantial interest” in “broad student-body diversity” not racial diversity. “So the district court was wrong to reject alternatives because they would require UNC to admit, for example, fewer minority students from wealthier families, more white students from poorer families, slightly fewer unrepresented minorities, or 0.5% Native Americans instead of 1.8%. UNC would have to prove that these minor changes would prevent it from achieving student-body diversity writ large.”

Lisa Soronen is executive director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to the NCSL Blog on judicial issues.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.