Race-Based Admissions: A Multifaceted Examination

Race-based admissions at universities exemplify the intricate and evolving nature of affirmative action policies, with these universities encountering legal battles to shape the guidelines considering race within admissions. These debates and experiences have far-reaching implications for the future of affirmative action policies by shaping the landscape of diversity and inclusion in higher education. This exerts a considerable influence on the admissions practices and opportunities for underrepresented groups, with the ongoing evolution of affirmative action policies underscoring the pursuit of creating equitable and inclusive educational environments.

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May 14, 2023

At YIP, nuanced policy briefs emerge from the collaboration of six diverse, nonpartisan students.

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The role of race in college admissions has sparked a significant and contentious debate that has escalated to legal challenges in recent years. Prominent universities, such as Harvard and the University of North Carolina (UNC), have been involved in lawsuits about the practice of affirmative action. These cases are integral for examining the history of race in admissions policies, and it allows us to understand why this is a heavily debated topic. Affirmative action is the policies used to correct past and present discrimination by creating equal opportunities for marginalized groups in promoting diversity and inclusion. In general, Affirmative action refers to a set of procedures used to ensure that groups of people are not discriminated against.


In the case of  Grutter vs. Bollinger, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of considering race as a factor in admissions. This landmark case affirmed the constitutionality of considering race for admissions giving universities the authority to implement policies based on race. Through universities' acknowledgment of the importance of diversity for historically marginalized groups, institutions were empowered to adopt practices to promote a more inclusive student body, laying the foundation for UNC and Harvard's commitment to fostering diversity and equal opportunity through the admissions process.

However, the 2014 Fisher vs. the University of Texas at Austin case clarified the role of race in admissions. This case emphasized that race should be considered a singular factor among a multitude of factors when reviewing applicants. This highlighted the need for a careful balance, ensuring that affirmative action happens within the bounds of constitutional principles. As a result, many universities had to refine their admissions practices and create an approach that considered a holistic review of an applicant. In addition, this case reinforced the idea that diversity should be pursued through an inclusive application process that can understand the broader context of applicants.

Current Cases

In 2014, a significant legal case emerged when Students for Fair Admissions filed a lawsuit against Harvard, alleging discriminatory admissions practices against Asian American applications. This lawsuit asserted that Harvard's admission policies prioritized race as a dominant factor leading to discriminatory treatment against Asian Americans by putting higher standards for Asian American students leading to them being at a disadvantage. After a legal battle in 2019, a federal district court ruled in favor of Harvard, affirming the constitutionality of their affirmative action within admissions; this further was appealed to the First Circuit Court of Appeals, which also ruled in favor of Harvard in 2020. More recently, the supreme court took up the case of Harvard and UNC's admissions processes. This ongoing legal dispute highlights the complex and contentious nature of affirmative action-based admission policies and their impact on education. A similar sequence of events ensued for UNC after they had been sued in 2022 by the Students for Fair Admissions for their affirmative action within admissions. However, their case is concurrently being reviewed by the Supreme Court and the Harvard case.


For Affirmative Action

Proponents of affirmative action in college admissions primarily argue that affirmative action eases the gap in educational opportunities created by systemic barriers such as poverty and racism. However, American higher education remains inaccessible for many marginalized groups, particularly low-income, Black, and Latino students, because of structural barriers stemming from systematic disenfranchisement. Often, these groups are lower-income and attend underfunded K-12 schools in segregated neighborhoods. Moreover, with the rising cost of college and student loan debt in higher education, socioeconomic inequalities have the potential to rise, serving as barriers to accessing higher education. Thus, proponents of affirmative action argue that it is an effective method for mitigating the disparities and giving these marginalized groups a level playing field.

Many supporters of affirmative action note that applicants have a higher chance of admission in current admissions processes due to many reasons, such as standardized test preparation, essay writing resources, cultural capital, and institutional preferences for legacies. Harvard’s records show that 22 percent of White students at Harvard were legacy admissions, with their total admission rate for legacies being 34 percent. In contrast, their overall admission rate is approximately 6 percent, showing an iteration in which marginalized groups are disadvantaged within the admissions process. The court documents also show that recruited athletes and faculty lineage were admitted at 86 and 47 percent, respectively. Thus, many support affirmative action as it attempts to level the playing field for disadvantaged groups.

It is often cited in support of affirmative action that diversity among student bodies in higher education is a compelling interest within the academic sphere. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Harvard and UNC have each concluded that a diverse student body benefits the entire university community by promoting academic debate and inquiry, exposing all community members to a broader set of ideas, and enhancing respect for different perspectives. Furthermore, according to the Harvard Graduate School of Education, decades of research in higher education demonstrate that classmates of the direct beneficiaries of affirmative action benefit, too. They have a better racial attitude toward racial minorities, report greater cognitive capacities, and participate more civically when they leave college.

Against Affirmative Action

Those in opposition maintain that through affirmative action policies, universities discriminate against Asian-American applicants by holding them to a higher standard than other racial groups, perpetuating the model minority myth and disadvantaging Asian-American applicants due to their race. Asian Americans have often been dubbed the model minority. This group is viewed as more educationally and economically prosperous than other minority groups because of its strong work ethic and perseverance. Asian Americans are described as intelligent and hardworking, yet uninteresting and indistinguishable from other Asian-American applicants. Their race is rarely seen as a positive factor in the chances of admissions, despite their minority status and overall contribution to collective diversity. It is argued that Asian Americans have stronger overall academic performances but are rejected to maintain "racial balancing"—capping the number of Asian American students admitted while admitting less qualified White, Black, and Latino applicants. 

Opponents of race-based admissions often refer to affirmative action as reverse discrimination, with institutions of higher education favoring less-qualified minority applicants at the expense of White males. Many also contend that affirmative action directly contradicts the Constitution's command that all people, regardless of race, are treated as equal before the law. This argument stems from Justice John Harlan's words in Plessy v. Ferguson: "Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law." Using race as a factor in admissions, this idea of a color-blind government is violated.

Another common viewpoint opposing affirmative action policies is that it strips college applicants of equal opportunity in the admissions process. Those who fall under this frame of thought often claim that affirmative action compromises the standards of academic institutions by admitting individuals who may not have met the same rigorous criteria as other applicants. They argue that the college admissions process should be a meritocracy, and underqualified minority applicants admitted over high-achieving non-minority applicants based on race is unfair to students who have worked tirelessly throughout high school.  

Some believe affirmative action stigmatizes those it is designed to help. Specifically, the presence of an affirmative action plan raises the possibility that members of the groups targeted were admitted due to their demographics, not their qualifications. Scholars have theorized that others discount the possibility that affirmative action targets are competent. In addition, it is theorized that the idea that demographics played a role in selection causes affirmative action targets to doubt their self-competence. Perceived incompetence is then likely to result in poor performance outcomes.

Ruling Implications

The rulings on the lawsuits that the University of North Carolina (UNC) and Harvard University have the potential to impact the college admissions process and shape specific policies for affirmative action. This case has brought the debate about race-based admissions to the forefront, creating the question of the constitutionality of utilizing race to influence admissions and the fairness of doing such. 

The rulings on the UNC and Harvard cases can clarify the use of race as a factor in admissions decisions. This could offer universities valuable guidance on creating an equilibrium between diversity goals and constitutional considerations. This provides a clear framework for the holistic review process, assisting universities in navigating the complexities of affirmative action policies and ensuring fair and equitable admission decisions. As the legal landscape surrounding the admissions process changes, the rulings can shape the future direction of college admissions promoting consistency in considering race as a factor of admissions in pursuing diversity and inclusion.

If the rulings impose stricter scrutiny on the use of race within admissions, universities may adopt narrow affirmative action policies for race. This could involve exploring different activities, such as considering socioeconomic status or geographic diversity, to promote campus diversity. Institutions would be required to provide evidence that the consideration of race is specifically tailored to create diversity and achieve their objectives within the field. This will lead to the admission process becoming more rigorous with a greater emphasis on the assessment of applicants shifting universities to analyze and justify their race-based policies to ensure they meet the strict standards set into motion with the constitution. This approach would encourage universities to create new strategies for promoting inclusion in higher education and academic spheres.

If the ruling upholds the constitutionality of using affirmative action policies, it will reaffirm the importance of diversity as an interest within higher education. This decision would provide universities with a legal basis to continue considering race as an essential factor within admissions to create a diverse student body. This would acknowledge the educational benefits of a diverse campus environment because the rulings endorse inclusivity, cross-cultural interactions, and understanding within academic communities. This would signal the recognition that diversity is a crucial part of education for students as it is vital for preparing them for an increasingly globalized world.

The Supreme Court ruling on the Harvard and UNC lawsuit will have significant implications for the academic community and admissions. It will affect admissions by showing colleges the level of scrutiny race will have within the admissions process and refine and clarify the admissions process. Additionally, it will be able to lead colleges to figure out alternate methods to produce a diverse academic environment when they cannot control it through admissions decisions. Overall, this ruling will have a significant impact on the function of college decisions and will have the potential to lead to more discussions about how we can improve issues such as diversity within the country.

Aneesh Mazumder

Social Policy Lead

Aneesh is a Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science senior and a social policy analyst at the Institute of Youth In Policy (YIP). As the former Policy Debate Lead for Grapevine High School, he is an avid, multi-format (TFA and UIL) state-qualified debater who seeks to leverage neuroscience and public policy for holistically addressing patients' needs.

Gracie Adams

Lead Analyst, Social Policy

Gracie Adams is a junior at Park Hill High School. She is involved in the speech and debate team at her school, is a policy fellow for Encode Justice, and plans to study environmental science in college. In her free time, she enjoys writing and reading.