What the Supreme Court’s rejection of affirmative action programs means for WA colleges

U.S. Supreme Court (Getty Images via Washington State Standard)

Colleges and universities in Washington will likely have to reconsider admissions processes after the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday ruled against factoring race into decisions about who is admitted to higher education programs.

Affirmative action in Washington’s public institutions — including state universities — has been banned for over two decades under a law voters approved in 1998. But the Supreme Court’s ruling will block race-conscious admissions programs at both public and private schools that receive federal funding, which most of them do.

Danieli Evans, a law professor at Seattle University, said private colleges and universities are likely to see the most significant effects.

“Seattle University, Gonzaga, and any other private entities in the state — all of those private entities receive federal funds because we get grants for research, scholarships, and all kinds of things,” Evans said.

The decision against Harvard and the University of North Carolina’s admissions systems takes away a tool universities say they need to correct historical racial inequities and increase the quality of education.

Evans pointed to research that says students in diverse classrooms generate more ideas and have richer discussions and that diversity is important for a sense of belonging and academic success for minority students.

Democratic lawmakers in Washington lambasted the decision and education leaders here said they remain committed to ensuring diversity among students.

“Republican-appointed judges have again shown their disdain for well-established principles of American law,” said Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who in 2022 loosened some guidelines related to the state’s ban on affirmative action.

“They’ve demonstrated they are blind to the fact that our long history of racism contributes to the opportunity barriers ethnic minorities still face today,” Inslee added.

But the court’s conservative justices say race-conscious admissions are what’s discriminatory and violate the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.

“Many universities have for too long wrongly concluded that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned, but the color of their skin,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts, a longtime critic of race-conscious admissions, in the majority opinion. “This Nation’s constitutional history does not tolerate that choice.”

The University of Washington, Washington State University, Seattle University and Gonzaga University all said their institutions would strive to create opportunities for all students.

“Seeking and serving a diverse student body and building an inclusive campus community improves the educational experience of all students, better preparing them to thrive in a multicultural and global economy,” said Kirk H. Schulz, the president of Washington State University, in a letter.

The opinion gives narrow allowances for affirmative action in certain cases, including military academies “in light of the potentially distinct interests” they may have.

Educational institutions may also still take into account how an applicant’s race “affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.” This opens the door for race to be taken into account individually, like in an essay, but not systematically.

“The main focus of these cases was a box on the application that required you to identify with a racial category. The main objection was to checking the box and categorizing yourself with one racial group or another,” Evans said.

She noted the opinion leaves a lot to be decided in future court battles — for example, whether an essay subject where the student is expected to name their race is equivalent to checking a box that categorizes it.

“There’s also this line that says the universities can’t simply establish new application essays, a regime that would do what the boxes are doing,” Evans said. “I have no idea what that means. Nobody does.”

— By Grace Deng, Washington State Standard

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: info@washingtonstatestandard.com. Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.

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