Protestors near the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., after a ruling by the court striking down the use of affirmative action in college acceptance decisions, on Thursday, June 29, 2023. (Jennifer Shutt/States Newsroom)
WASHINGTON — Thursday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision that effectively scrambles the role affirmative action plays in the college admissions process cannot let the country slide “backwards,” President Joe Biden said just hours after the majority justices released their opinion.
Meanwhile, Republicans seeking to challenge him in 2024 praised the decision. Issues of race and higher education will likely play a role in the 2024 presidential race, with attacks on identity, race and sexuality already permeating the U.S. political landscape.
Biden called the decision to end affirmative action at Harvard and the University of North Carolina “severely disappointing” and urged higher education admissions officials to retool criteria to consider “adversity a student has overcome when selecting among qualified applicants.”
Biden also ordered the Department of Education to analyze what practices promote inclusive and diverse student populations and which do not, including “practices like legacy admissions and other systems that expand privilege instead of opportunity.” Many elite universities give preference to the children of alumni.
According to a fact sheet released by the administration Thursday, both the departments of Education and Justice will release guidance to universities within 45 days that will “provide clarity” on what admissions practices remain lawful.
“The only people who benefit from the system are the wealthy and the well connected,” Biden said from the White House. “The odds have been stacked against working people for much too long. We need a higher education system that works for everyone.”
Court’s reversal of precedent
The decision to overturn both a private and public institution’s use of affirmative action marks the second time in as many terms that the high court has bucked established precedent.
The court has held for 45 years a late 1970s decision that allowed race to be one of several admissions criteria.
Last summer, the conservative majority court, in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, overturned the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that guaranteed the constitutional right to abortion as well as the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision that preserved federal abortion protections but with some restrictions.
The affirmative action decision was another earthquake. “Today, the court once again walked away from decades of precedent as (the) dissent has made clear,” Biden said Thursday, referring to the dissenting opinion written by the three liberal justices, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson — though Jackson recused herself from the Harvard portion of the decision because of her ties to the institution.
“This is not a normal court,” Biden said in response to a shouted question from a reporter about the Congressional Black Caucus’ statement Thursday that the high court has “thrown into question its own legitimacy.”
Thursday’s Supreme Court decision now further magnifies identity and cultural politics surrounding postsecondary education, whereas schisms over childhood and adolescent education have taken much of the spotlight of late.
Education in the K-12 setting has been a particular battleground for conservatives who have sought to regulate gender identity in school sports, framed access to instruction materials and school budgets — already accessible and public — as a “Parental Bill of Rights,” and have fixated on curriculum, books and poems dealing with race and slavery.
Former President Donald Trump issued a statement calling the Supreme Court decision “a great day for America.”
“People with extraordinary ability and everything else necessary for success, including future greatness for our country, are finally being rewarded. This is the ruling everyone was waiting and hoping for and the result was amazing. It will also keep us competitive with the rest of the world. Our greatest minds must be cherished and that’s what this wonderful day has brought. We’re going back to all merit-based—and that’s the way it should be!” he said.
Trump’s former vice president and 2024 presidential contender Mike Pence told NBC News that affirmative action in university admissions is no longer relevant.
“There may have been a time 50 years ago when we needed to affirmatively take steps to correct long-term racial bias in institutions of higher education … I can tell you, as the father of three college graduates, those days are long over,” Pence said.
Nikki Haley, former governor of South Carolina and Trump appointee as U.S. representative to the United Nations, hailed the court’s decision.
“The world admires America because we value freedom and opportunity. The Supreme Court reaffirmed those values today. Picking winners and losers based on race is fundamentally wrong. This decision will help every student — no matter their background — have a better opportunity to achieve the American Dream,” the 2024 presidential candidate said in a statement issued immediately following the decision.
U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who is also running in the Republican presidential primary, echoed Trump’s sentiment and said the decision marked “a good day for America.”
“This is the day where we understand that being judged by the content of our character, not the color of our skin, is what our Constitution wants,” Scott said on Fox News, invoking a line from civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. “We are continuing to work on forming this more perfect union. Today is better than yesterday, this year, better than last year, this decade better than last decade.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, also a GOP contender in the 2024 race, published a two-sentence post on Twitter that read: “College admissions should be based on merit and applicants should not be judged on their race or ethnicity. The Supreme Court has correctly upheld the Constitution and ended discrimination by colleges and universities.”
According to the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, overall college enrollment rates among 18- to 24-year-olds decreased in almost every race category from 2010 to 2021, except for Pacific Islanders.
Despite the decrease, college enrollment among the Asian American population remained higher than all other races.
The left-leaning Center for American Progress in 2020 analyzed enrollment declines among various racial groups and compared them with demographic data trends tracked by the U.S. Census Bureau.
The drop in college enrollment among white young adults is “worrisome,” the authors write, “but compared with those of Black students, they are not as disproportionate relative to population changes.”
The authors also recommended that states and institutions examining the drop in white students “take a closer look at whether these declines may be greater among some subgroups … such as those who live in rural areas or those who are first-generation students.”
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