California private colleges fear affirmative action ban as Supreme Court prepares to rule
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As a first generation student of color, JP Flores credits much of his academic success to his ability to attend Occidental College, a small, private college in Southern California with what he describes as an inclusive culture.
“It changed my perspective on the world and changed the trajectory of my life,” said Flores, who is now pursuing a Ph.D. in bioinformatics & computational biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
That trajectory might have been different, Flores said, if Occidental had been barred from using affirmative action in admissions — a situation that could become reality this summer if the U.S. Supreme Court rules against the practice in two widely watched cases.
Anxiety about the ruling is mounting at the state’s private colleges, which until now have not been subject to a California law prohibiting public universities from considering race, sex and ethnicity in admissions and hiring. Administrators at those colleges are turning to alternative policies that could help boost diverse enrollment, while student activists are trying to increase awareness on their campuses about the possible impact of an affirmative action ban.
The Supreme Court is expected to rule in June on two lawsuits filed by Students for Fair Admissions — a non-profit group led by conservative legal strategist Edward Blum — after hearing arguments in the cases in October. One suit argues that Harvard University’s admission policy discriminates against Asian American applicants, while the other asserts that The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill discriminates against Asian American and white applicants.
Although it is unclear how limited or expansive the ruling might be, many university leaders and student activists are bracing for an outright ban on affirmative action on all campuses, given the court’s conservative majority.
Flores said he worries especially about the impact on diversity in the STEM professions. He founded a podcast “From Where Does it STEM?” in 2021, where he interviews scientists from diverse backgrounds about their experiences in the field, and helps recruit and retain underrepresented minority students to STEM programs. If private universities are banned from using affirmative action, he fears, it will “only bring one perspective to the forefront.”
“I think people in science are really starting to realize that in order to solve biological problems like cancer, Alzheimer’s, or different diseases, it takes an interdisciplinary approach,” Flores said. “People really underestimate the power of having a diverse scientific workforce behind these problems.”
Universities bracing for impact
Some California private universities have flagged that an affirmative action ban could constrain their ability to review applications holistically — taking into account all aspects of an applicant’s identity, including experiences, attributes and academic metrics.
A holistic admissions process is essential to creating a student body that equips “students to become the citizens of the world (needed) to meet the greatest needs of our society,” said Eva Blanco Masias, the vice president of enrollment at Santa Clara University.
And race is often deeply embedded in a student’s application, said Masias — not just in the demographic information, but also in their essays. Students often write about life experiences, where race can play a factor, she said.
While it’s impossible to predict the court’s ruling, “there might be some limitations put on institutions’ ability to consider race (and) ethnicity as one of many, many factors in holistic admissions,” said Julie Park, an associate professor of education at the University of Maryland, College Park.
“So is that going to be some sort of limitation? Is that going to be an outright ban? We don’t really know,” said Park, who has studied race and admissions for nearly two decades and served as a consulting expert for Harvard on the SFFA case until 2018.
Another concern is that students from underrepresented backgrounds, aware of the ban, might opt out of applying to private colleges, said Kristen Soares, president of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities, a trade group of more than 80 colleges.
“People know about this decision being debated right now in the highest court of law in the nation,” she said. Private colleges, she said, are “really worried” that families might interpret a potential affirmative action ban as a message: “You’re not welcome at these institutions.”