SCOTUS curtails Affirmative Action, legacy admissions intact

Karen Mogami/The Miscellany News.

On June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruled in both Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina that race-conscious admission policies are unconstitutional. The 6-3 decision left many wondering what this means for the future of college admissions both nationwide and here at Vassar. 


The 1978 Regents of the University of California v. Bakke case determined admitting students through a racial quota system was unconstitutional. The Bakke case instead found the consideration of one’s racial identity in college admissions policies was permissible when examined holistically and in conjunction with other factors. This effectively established how affirmative action policies could be applied in college admissions. The newest ruling from SCOTUS will no longer permit colleges and universities to formally consider race as a determining factor in admissions, citing a violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. However, in Chief Justice Roberts’ court majority opinion he specified one’s racial experience may be considered, stating “At the same time, as all parties agree, nothing in the opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.”


Following the landmark decision, President of Vassar College Elizabeth Bradley released a statement to the Vassar community the same day saying, “We are especially concerned about the potentially far-reaching impacts. When California banned affirmative action in 1996, the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and Berkeley experienced a nearly 50% decline in enrolling Black and Latinx students, compromising an inclusive learning environment for all students.” Bradley continued, “The rule of law is of paramount importance to our democracy, and Vassar will fully abide by the Supreme Court’s decision while continuing efforts to enroll a diverse student body in keeping with our long-standing values.”


In a written statement to The Miscellany News, Bradley expanded on her previous message to the community, saying, “We are reflecting on our approach and reviewing our policies.” She shared, “Our focus is on ensuring we continue to meet our mission which strives to pursue diversity, inclusion, and equity as essential components of a rich intellectual and cultural environment in which all members, including those from underrepresented and marginalized groups, are valued and empowered to thrive.”


A week after the court’s ruling, the College held a webinar panel via Zoom for the Vassar community. The panel was moderated by Deputy to the President Wesley Dixon and featured three experts on Affirmative Action: Vassar Professor of Critical Race Theory and Constitutional Law Luke Harris, Associate Professor at the Boston University Law School Jonathan Feingold ’07 and Director of Strategic Initiatives for the African American Policy Forum Sumi Cho. The webinar sought to provide insights into what affirmative action is and is not, survey the social, political and judicial factors that contributed to this ruling, and examine potential next steps for Vassar and its students.


To demonstrate commitment to social justice and equity in the face of affirmative action’s dissolution, Cho said, “[We should be] publicly affirming one’s commitment to racial diversity; discontinuing standardized exams; eliminating financial barriers; strengthening targeted outreach and recruitment efforts; establishing partnerships with community colleges and four year degree programs; eliminating special preferences such as legacies and athletes etc.; and collaborating with other local, state and federal institutions and agencies.” 


Harris agreed, discussing the shortcomings of college admissions saying, “Elite universities have failed to sufficiently expand the terms of the debate to embrace a serious critique of the traditional admissions criteria including the limitations of the usage of standardized tests.” He added, “We should amplify and reinforce the need for holistic admissions and de-emphasize things like standardized exams.”


Feingold advocated for colleges and universities to take this opportunity to modify their current policies saying, “Every institution who really cares about racial diversity should see this as an opportunity to interrogate how its admissions process unnecessarily rewards those with the most inherited advantage.” 


In the wake of race-conscious admissions policies becoming impermissible for colleges and universities, legacy admissions—when the alumni status of an applicant’s family member can be used as preferential treatment in admissions—have also come under scrutiny given that the Supreme Court’s decision will not pertain to legacy admissions. Lawyers for Civil Rights, an organization in Boston, has filed a lawsuit against Harvard alleging their policies give preferential treatment to children of donors who are often underqualified and predominantly white students. The suit has prompted the Department of Education to investigate Harvard’s admissions policies.


Bradley confirmed that Vassar’s current admissions policy allows for the consideration of an applicant’s legacy status: “Legacy status is one factor among many we consider when reviewing our applicant pool. Vassar conducts a holistic review of each applicant and a student’s academic record, such as the rigor of their curriculum and their grades, is of primary importance. Historically, less than five percent of Vassar students are legacies.”


Students like Maryam Bacchus ’25 said the ruling is a disappointment, “As it stands, the decision affects an avenue that was in place to grant equal access to underrepresented populations, especially those who may be first generation students.” She continued, “I believe that overturning admissions policies on the basis that they are unfair to the masses should be extended to legacy admissions policies.” 


Soren Fischer ’26 expressed similar sentiments saying, “While the conservative perspective on the matter suggests a return to a more merit-based admissions process, this calls out directly to the issue of legacy consideration. There is a large support to end it, especially at elite colleges and universities where disproportionate benefits have been shown towards wealthy and white students.

It is currently unclear what amendments will be made to the current Vassar admissions policy. During the panel, Bradley discussed some actions the college has taken to strengthen their commitment to social justice and equity including Vassar’s need-blind financial aid policy, the recent change to become test-optional last semester, and the college’s Exploring Transfer program that partners with numerous community colleges. Bradley added that the impact of eliminating legacy and athletics in admissions has not yet been evaluated, “We have not really done the analysis to know what the implication of that would be. We certainly will.”

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