SCOTUS to hear challenge to race-based college admissions policies

by mcardinal

Chris Lange, FISM News


The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday agreed to hear a pair of cases challenging college admissions policies which give preferential treatment to certain minority groups.

The high court will take up cases against Harvard and The University of North Carolina, both of which have been brought by Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA). The non-profit group was founded by conservative activist Edward Blum who has been on a quest to end affirmative action admissions policies in colleges and universities for the better part of a decade. 

The court announced its decision in a brief order void of any noted comment or dissent. The move goes against the wishes of the Biden administration, which last month weighed in on the Harvard University case. The White House argued that the school’s admissions practices are lawful and urged the justices to refuse to hear the challenge. 

SFFA filed a lawsuit against Harvard University in 2014 accusing the Ivy League school of unlawful “racial balancing.” The student-led group in their complaint alleged that Asian American applicants were being held to a higher standard than other minority groups, as well as white students, in the school’s “personal ratings” scoring system to determine admissions eligibility. A federal appeals court ruled that Harvard’s admissions board did not violate the law, after which SFFA appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Harvard denies that its admissions policies are discriminatory and accuses SFFA of trying to render null decades of precedent which has allowed higher-education institutions to promote campus diversity by taking into account the racial makeup of their student bodies. 

“Having failed to make the case that Harvard’s admissions practices contravene the court’s precedents governing the use of race in admissions, SFFA asks the court to overthrow them,” Harvard wrote in a filing last May, adding that the group “offers no legitimate justification for such an extraordinary step.” 

SFFA also sued the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, one of the country’s top-rated public universities, over its race-based admissions policies. In that case SFFA argues that the university discriminated against both whites and Asians.

In its complaint, SFFA argued that the public university violated the U.S. Constitution and Civil Rights Act by basing undergraduate admissions on race and ethnicity in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The group further asserts that UNC’s undergraduate admissions policy goes beyond generally considering “race as a ‘plus’ factor’ in admissions decisions,” and, instead, overtly “uses race as a factor in admissions.” A federal district court sided with the university, prompting SFFA to bypass an intermediate federal court and instead appeal the decision directly to the Supreme Court. 

At the core of both cases is the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, which upheld the right of college admissions boards to factor in an applicant’s race in an effort to benefit minority groups. In their petition for appeal, SFFA states, “Grutter’s core holding — that universities can use race in admissions to pursue student-body diversity — is plainly wrong.”

A federal judge in Boston rejected that argument in a decision, stating that Harvard’s admissions program is lawful. The ruling was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit, triggering SFFA’s appeal to the Supreme Court.

The two cases, which have been consolidated, are slated to be heard next fall.