The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in two cases that could end affirmative action on college admissions and legally force colleges to reconstruct admissions policies, including for applicants who play sports.
Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), a nonprofit advocacy group, alleges in lawsuits that Harvard and UNC Chapel Hill violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which makes it illegal for colleges to discriminate against or restrict benefits on the basis of race and color refuse , or national origin. The lawsuits argue that the schools specifically favor and reject applicants based on their race, which the SFFA calls race-neutral alternatives. Schools insist that they have a compelling interest in student diversity and that their race-sensitive admissions policies are closely tailored to achieve this goal. Harvard and UNC also draw on Supreme Court precedents, including Grutter v. Bollingera 2003 decision in which the court found that schools may consider an applicant’s membership of an “underrepresented minority group” as long as other factors are considered.
The schools have won in lower courts but face major challenges in the Supreme Court, where several judges have previously expressed skepticism about affirmative action.
Harvard’s admissions policy shows the role of race in admissions and its relationship to athletics. Each applicant is assigned a score ranging from “1” at the high end to “6” on six dimensions: academic, extracurricular, athletic, school support, personal, and overall. In addition, applicants receive “tips” or “plus factors” for their race and ethnicity; legacy status; be a faculty or staff child; and to be a recruited athlete. A recruited athlete is usually assigned a “1” for athletic, while a “2” would reflect an applicant who, although not recruited, could potentially play for the Crimson. According to court documents, 86% of applicants who receive an “A” in sports are accepted, a higher percentage than those who receive an “A” in other categories.
This system, the SFAA claims, results in Black and Hispanic applicants getting better chances of admission than other applicants, particularly Asian American applicants.
“Applicants with the same ‘academic index’ [a metric drawn from SAT scores and GPA and is reported to the Ivy Athletic League] had very different admission rates depending on the breed,” says the SFFA’s summary. “An Asian American in the fourth lowest decile has virtually no chance of getting into Harvard (0.9%); but an African American in this decile has a higher chance of admission (12.8%) than an Asian American in the decile above decile (12.7%).”
According to the SFFA, Harvard could meet diversity goals by eliminating racial and child preferences from donors, alumni, or faculty and staff and applying a “socioeconomic boost” that would be about half the size of the preference for recruited athletes. According to the SFFA, such a system would increase combined Black and Hispanic admissions, increase Asian American admissions, and decrease white admissions. Meanwhile, the SFFA said GPA would remain stable and SAT scores would “fall only slightly to 98th percentile.”
Harvard has rejected these types of changes to its admissions policies. The university insists it does not “track quotas” and instead strives to “offer educational benefits that result from bringing together students of different races in classes, dining halls, extracurricular activities, athletics and campus-wide events.” In the negotiations, Harvard emphasized that many athletes come from different backgrounds and that the famous Harvard-Yale soccer game is a way to build community.
The role of race in the eligibility of athletes was discussed in amicus briefs presented to the court. A brief filed by “legal scholars defending racially aware approvals” states that “75% of recruited athletes are white” and “are typically affluent.” The letter is from a Labor Economics Journal Study titled “Legacy and Athlete Preferences at Harvard”. The study notes that “recruited athletes at Harvard tend to [economically] favored and disproportionately white, in part because of the varsity sports Harvard offers, including fencing, sailing and skiing.” The legal scholars contend that addressing an alleged Asian-American bias in Harvard’s admissions did not focus on black or Hispanic applicants but on how “Harvard’s Legacy+ preferences reward less qualified white applicants for their inherited race and class privilege.”
The UNC case raises similar questions, with recruited athletes and other groups gaining benefits. Mike Krzyzewski, former Duke men’s basketball coach, Geno Auriemma, UConn women’s basketball coach, and nearly 350 other head basketball coaches submitted an amicus brief benefiting Harvard and UNC. The coaches warn that if the Supreme Court finds the use of race in licensing illegal, “student athletes will be particularly harmed” than “college athletics programs.” [would become] isolated and stereotyped enclaves of diversity.”
The court will rule on the two cases by next summer.