Court nixes colleges’ consideration of race, one factor of many in admissions

America likes to believe that institutions of higher learning are bastions of egalitarianism — open and accessible to all based solely on merit and promise. The reality, of course, is far different.

In practice, there are plenty of designations that differentiate applicants from one another, even when students’ secondary achievements, standardized test scores and extracurricular activities are comparable. One of these — race — was struck down by the Supreme Court last week as a violation of the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.


Affirmative action was always an imperfect solution to a tempestuous American problem, but it helped bolster campus diversity and extended the promise of higher education to students who might otherwise be denied. Closing one door will not make college admissions more egalitarian and instead could make the colorblind society to which the justices aspire even harder to reach.

The court’s ruling last week concerned policies at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina which consider race as one of many factors for admission. The six-justice majority concluded they violate the 14th Amendment.

This ruling rests on the false notion that ours is a colorblind society that need not consider race in situations such as this, when the reality is that some students enjoy historical advantages when applying for college that minorities, women and other groups have long been denied.

Consider, for instance, the parallels between UNC and the University of Virginia. Graduation from U.Va., like earning a degree from Chapel Hill, carries a lot of weight with employers. A diploma conveys the prestige of the commonwealth’s flagship university, because U.Va. is selective in its admissions and considered one of the premier public institutions of higher education in this country.

Founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819, the Charlottesville university operated for 111 years before admitting its first female undergraduate student and 131 years before admitting its first Black undergraduate student. This fall will mark U.Va.’s 204th year educating the commonwealth’s future leaders, of which only 73 have been accessible to every eligible Virginia student.

Of course, the university doesn’t operate in a vacuum. Though U.Va. admitted Black students beginning in 1950s, massive resistance to public school integration persisted in Virginia into the 1970s. That dashed the college dreams for generations of students.

Add it up, and Black Virginia students have only had a fair shot at admission to U.Va. for about 50 years. And many of those granted entry overcame extraordinary obstacles to “earn” the opportunity.

Should this information be among the considerations when building a student body representative of Virginia or North Carolina or elsewhere? The Supreme Court says no, that the country has evolved to the point that it would be unfair to use race as one data point for admissions.

But colleges and universities are still free to use other qualifications when evaluating applicants. Children whose parents are alumni and children of prolific donors have always enjoyed an advantage in the process that has nothing to do with merit or achievement.

Military academies were also specifically exempted from the court’s decision, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing, “no military academy is a party to these cases.” The court agrees that the nation’s armed forces have a vested interest in considering race at their most valuable entryways but tellingly would not extend that to other private and public universities.

Americans, like the court’s majority, want to believe that higher education should be a level playing field based on merit, but that’s simply not the case yet. Using race as one factor in college admissions is one way to move this country closer to that ideal, and the court did more harm than good by prohibiting it.