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How can colleges prepare for the possibility the Supreme Court will strike down race-conscious admissions?

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HOUSTON — At a Thursday session of the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s annual meeting, a panelist posed a question to the room: Do you feel prepared if the U.S. Supreme Court were to strike down race-conscious admissions?

Not one college enrollment management official raised their hands to say yes. 

It’s far from a hypothetical, though. The high court is due on Halloween to start hearing oral arguments in cases that could fundamentally reshape nearly 50 years of legal precedent permitting tailored consideration of race in college admissions. 

Legal experts foresee that, given the Supreme Court’s hard conservative majority, it will almost certainly end race-conscious admissions. In doing so it would be siding with Students for Fair Admissions, or SFFA, a legal group suing Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill over their enrollment policies. 

Thus, college leaders should start preparing for the likelihood that the Supreme Court will ax race as an admissions factor, presenters said at NACAC’s meeting. And institutions shouldn’t wait, said Art Coleman, a session panelist and managing partner and co-founder of EducationCounsel LLC, a policy, strategy and legal consulting firm.

Admissions professionals should start drawing in other departments, like institutional general counsels, to develop plans. Colleges should also prioritize research on current law and crafting public messaging for campuses. 

After all, a decision against race-conscious admissions doesn’t just unravel long-standing admissions practices, they said. It strikes at the heart of values that higher education treasures: diversity, equity and inclusion.

Students will need to hear those tenets affirmed.

The cases before the Supreme Court

SFFA has taken on race-conscious practices before, to mixed results. It argues that Harvard’s admissions practices disadvantage Asian American students. Its claims in the UNC-Chapel Hill lawsuit differ slightly. 

But at their core, both cases seek to blow up race-conscious admissions. 

Arguments for preserving race-conscious practices have barely passed muster with previous iterations of the high court — it surprised the public in at least one recent legal challenge by still allowing use of these policies. 

The Harvard and UNC cases were consolidated, but in July were unbundled to enable the court’s newest justice, Ketanji Brown Jackson, to participate in proceedings. Jackson has said she would recuse herself from the consolidated case because she sat on a Harvard advisory body. 

Several institutions and higher ed organizations have submitted briefs in defense of Harvard and UNC-Chapel Hill. But the case still isn’t front of mind for some colleges, presenters said. 

That’s a mistake, Coleman said. Though based on Supreme Court patterns, a decision in the cases will likely drop late June 2023, Coleman said it’s also possible it will come as early as February.

How can colleges prepare for the possibility the Supreme Court will strike down race-conscious admissions?

Panelists speak about the pending race-conscious admissions case before the Supreme Court at the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s annual meeting.

 

High-ranking enrollment managers should assign one individual — a “brilliant” one — in their offices to handle research and planning ahead of the Supreme Court’s actions, said Ashley Pallie, director of undergraduate admissions at the California Institute of Technology. 

Vice presidents shouldn’t attempt to take on these tasks themselves, Pallie said. Another priority will pull them away, and admissions offices must be ready, she said.

“Get a dedicated professional. Do not hand it off to an entry-level person,” Pallie said. 

What else should institutions do?

That’s an important step because colleges must grasp the law on affirmative action as it currently stands, Pallie said. In cases like Grutter v. Bollinger, the Supreme Court previously upheld narrow applications of race in admissions, meaning institutions cannot institute racial quotas. 

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