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The College Admissions Game


Two cases headed to the U.S. Supreme Court this month hold the power to alter the way colleges use race as a factor in their admissions processes. Many experts believe the conservative majority of the court will result in a decision against the colleges’ current practices. 

On Oct. 31, the Supreme Court will hear the case Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, a lawsuit concerning racial discrimination in college admissions processes.The use of affirmative action in college admissions has raised disputes since its inception.

AP US History teacher John Bungarden said proponents of affirmative action in the application process say it levels the playing field by providing a step up for underrepresented minorities.

“It’s like the grand baseball game of life,” Bungarden said. “I started on second base. They started in the dugout. I may have gotten home, and they may be right behind me, but they had to work a whole lot harder to get there.”


In 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10925 to establish the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an agency that enforces laws and investigates complaints regarding discrimination in the workplace. According to the US Department of Labor, this executive order required public institutions to integrate people of different races, creeds and national origins.

During the late 1960s, many colleges adopted the newly established policy of affirmative action to address discrimination on campus. In the early 1970s, universities admitted nearly double the number of Black students compared to the year before, echoing the Civil Rights Movement’s call for racial diversity.

Following widespread university actions, the use of affirmative action in college admissions became encouraged. This allowed some consideration of race in the application process in order to diversify student populations on campus.

With no explicit restrictions on affirmative action, many universities began to follow the trend of setting racial quotas that determined the number of applicants of a certain race they would accept in any given year.

But in the landmark case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, a white man named Allan Bakke won a lawsuit against the University of California on the basis of reverse discrimination for the university’s use of race as an admissions factor. This 1978 ruling  prohibited the use of racial quotas, stating such quotas were unconstitutional and violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

While quota systems are prohibited, the Supreme Court continues to side with universities practicing affirmative action in the college admissions process. A quota system is a policy that sets a specific number of spots aside per year for minority students while affirmative action attempts to reach that same goal by using race as only one factor.

Educational Equity Program Manager Sally Chen from Chinese for Affirmative Action, a racial justice organization based in San Francisco, said the Supreme Court has continuously affirmed that diversity in education is important, but certain groups of people have protested affirmative action due to their political beliefs.

“These attacks on affirmative action, the use of race in admissions, have come as part of a larger conservative wave, to try to remove policies that are sort of our legacy and under inheritance from the Civil Rights Movement,” Chen said.

Furthermore, affirmative action now includes many marginalized groups of people. While affirmative action is primarily known as a race-related policy, it now legally encompasses sex, religion, disability, indigenous stature and sexual orientation.

Bungarden said the upcoming Harvard and UNC Supreme Court cases should re-examine how affirmative action might be advantageous or disadvantageous to certain groups of people.

“Some kids feel wronged because they did all the things they could do to mirror acceptance into one of the elite top three institutions in this country, and they don’t get in because we’ve admitted too many of your kind, whatever that means,” Bungarden said. “That just seems wrong.”

However, Chen from CAA said affirmative action offers many more benefits than drawbacks.

“We’re in support of the use of race in admissions,” Chen said. “It is extremely effective. There are no-race, race-blind, or race-neutral alternatives that can reach the same levels of ability to recruit and retain a diverse cohort of students.”

Bungarden also said while some students may be negatively affected by affirmative action in college admissions, many universities try their best to provide opportunities for marginalized groups of students.

“On the other hand, for Harvard, you want a diverse student body,” Bungarden said. “How do you create that otherwise?”

While the Harvard and UNC cases have brought up many different sides to whether or not affirmative action in college admissions is ethical, Chen said many people’s identities revolve around their race.

“(Affirmative action) is about looking at someone with their whole story,” Chen said. “You lose so much when you’re turning a blind eye to race and racism.”

Due to its controversial nature, Bungarden said there is no correct answer regarding affirmative action, especially for the college admissions process.

“No matter the solution you come up with, it will be imperfect,” Bungarden said. “People will be affected and will be denied opportunities that they feel they are entitled to”


The court cases against Harvard and UNC are brought by the Students for Fair Admissions, an organization that claims that the use of affirmative action results in illegal racial discrimination. 

SFFA founder Edward Blum said he hopes that race will be completely eliminated as a factor in college admissions. 

“It is our hope that the U.S. Supreme Court ends the use of racial classifications and preferences in admissions at all colleges and universities in the United States,” Blum told The Campanile. “We believe that a student’s race should not be used to help, or hurt, them in the college admissions process.”

The two cases were argued together before the First Circuit Court, who abided by precedent and ruled in favor of Harvard University. But the cases will be heard separately by the Supreme Court so that newly inaugurated Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, who formerly served on the Harvard Board of Overseers, can still rule on the UNC case. Jackson recused herself from the Harvard case due to her potential conflict of interest. 

Gunn senior Paul Kramer, the founder of the Institute for Youth in Policy, said while he doesn’t expect the Supreme Court to completely ban affirmative action, the conservative majority on the court may limit the consideration of race in the college admissions process. 

“I don’t think the Supreme Court is going to determine that Harvard can’t use race at all, since it’s a private institution,” Kramer said.  “I believe it’s going to reverse the First Circuit Court ruling but not categorically disapprove of affirmative action. They might ban quotas but likely allow race as a factor in admissions.”

Kramer said private institutions aren’t bound by federal rules as much as public institutions are. 

“Public institutions are restricted from using any racial, ethnic or gender statistics in their review of candidates due to federal regulation, which contrasts with the more holistic and race-conscious approach that is taken legally by many private institutions,” Kramer said.  

Chen said that the Supreme Court has historically upheld affirmative action practices, noting that he use of race in admissions has been upheld through over 40 years of Supreme Court decisions. She also cited the downward trend in diversity at California schools after affirmative action was banned in the state, and that the upcoming case has potential to extend that trend nationally.

“If you look at UC’s versus Harvard, we’ve seen really drastic reductions in the number of black and brown students at the UC’s,” Chen said. “We’ve seen that impact in areas beyond education, like in public employment and public contracting.”


Asian American junior Sophia Kim said the main idea of affirmative action is to increase opportunities for underrepresented minorities in order to compensate for past discrimination and a practical way of increasing diversity from the educational standpoint.

“Because there’s a lot of systemic marginalization in the institution of education, affirmative action is one of the more concise and most feasible ways to decrease the gaps between socioeconomic classes,” Kim said. “It’s the easiest way to provide a good quality education for people that might not normally be able to gain access to it.”

Carter Blair, a senior and president of the Black Student Union, said the recent controversy around affirmative action is reason to reexamine how universities have been practicing it.   

“I think that it was definitely beneficial in the past, but the fact that some of these cases have gone to the Supreme Court proves that it’s a more complex issue that needs to be looked at and explored,” Blair said.

Blair also said college admission officials may want to consider a more complete background of their applicants. 

“When we talk about Black and Latino students trying to get into college, the major argument for affirmative action is that they come from a lower socioeconomic background,” Blair said. “So this raises the question, should affirmative action shift to examining people and their socioeconomic status more than their cultural and racial backgrounds?”

However, the main controversy stems from Asian American groups opposing affirmative action based on race because they say it tends to work against them.

But Southeast Asian junior Sidd Sen doesn’t agree. He said affirmative action is beneficial since it supports disadvantaged and minority students. 

“I can see where (Asian American students) are coming from because they probably feel that they’re being disadvantaged by the system, the same way I feel I’m being disadvantaged,” Sen said. “But, there are people who are already disadvantaged, who need to be advantaged even at the cost of other people.”

However, freshman Gavin Lin said it is a combination of hard work and privilege that gives some students the upper hand when it comes to college admissions. 

“I feel like affirmative action should not play a role in college admissions because you can’t control your race, but you can control how hard you work,” Lin said. “At the same time, some groups are frequently born into a lot more privilege than others and do have an advantage.”

Contrastingly, Sally Chen from Chinese for Affirmative Action said race still needs to be looked at since it is such a prevalent part in modern society. 

“To try to be race blind in a world where racism still exists, and if racism were not in existence, then maybe we could talk then about being race-blind,” Chen said. “But that’s not the reality we live in.”

Chen also said abolishing affirmative action in college admissions reverses the progress society has been making in terms of desegregation. 

“Part of this idea around affirmative action is about integration. To some extent, you have to think about recruiting people who have been historically excluded,” Chen said. “But if you’re removing all these tools that are originally meant to combat segregation, how can we talk about actually having an integrated classroom and integrated society?” 

Affirmative action has already prompted multiple Supreme Court cases over the years. Its inherently controversial nature due to its quasi-discriminatory practices have sparked debate, discussion and argument ever since it was instituted. 

The long-fought debate between discrimination and reverse-discrimination that haunts affirmative action has reached a tipping point, and a conservative majority in the Supreme Court could push affirmative action over the edge. 

The October cases have the potential to set new standards for how colleges use race in admissions, which could reveal how our current perspective of racial societal integration has changed since affirmative action policies were originally instituted. 

Nonetheless, the idea that diversity — whether on a college campus, workplace, or any other organization — is important to educated thinking and effective representation is a core value of our country and democratic system as it stands today. 

“I think no matter where you work, or what you do, no matter where you are, diversity of thought is incredibly important,” Kramer said. “And diversity of thought comes from diverse backgrounds. So the idea of affirmative action is not wrong, per se, but it could be reimagined to be a lot better than it is now.”

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Hannah Singer
Hannah Singer, Editor-in-Chief
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