In a few short weeks, millions of young Americans will set foot on college campuses around the country as first-time freshmen students holding a unique distinction—they are the last class of university students admitted under race-conscious affirmative action policies. The Supreme Court struck down affirmative action policies in a 6-3 decision in late June.
For the past 40 years, racial diversity increased on college campuses with each decade. But diversity figures in the handful of states that previously banned affirmative action policies in higher education tell a different story.
The year California voters approved an affirmative action ban at public universities in the state in 1996, Black and Latino enrollment at the University of California, Berkeley and UCLA fell by 40 percent, according to Princeton University economist Zachary Bleemer. Data from other states with bans tell a similar tale.
The 2022 entering freshman class at the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus was the most racially diverse in the institution’s history. Black students are just slightly underrepresented and make up about 9 percent of the overall student body in a state with a Black population of 12 percent, according to 2022 census data.
Diversity is an afterthought
Kristina Yeboah is a rising senior at the University of Minnesota and president of the Black Student Union. She’s concerned that the ban on affirmative action could reduce diversity at her school. “I think [for] people of color that are looking towards the U of M, [it’s] already a little bit overwhelming, considering it is a PWI (predominately White institution),” Yeboah said. “But with this new affirmative action [decision], it’s just gonna be even more tough to build that diversity.”
The University of Minnesota updated its admissions policy following the Supreme Court decision, confirming race and ethnicity will no longer be considered as a part of the “holistic” admissions process.
“The application will ask for this optional information for recruitment and communication purposes about programs and services offered,” the university said. “The information will not be provided to application reviewers and will not be considered at any point during the University of Minnesota admissions decision process.”
Predominately White institutions should take additional steps to attract Black applicants and ensure inclusive and diverse spaces exist on college campuses in the wake of ruling, Yeboah said.
“I think that it’s best not to throw a bunch of people of color on the front of a folder to show that ‘oh, yeah, we have diversity here.’ I think it’s best to actually show what exactly these universities are doing for students of color to benefit them academically,” she said.
Harvard College is one of two institutions at the center of the Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action.
Students for Fair Admissions brought lawsuits against Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, alleging their admissions policies violated the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by giving preference to Black and Hispanic students, causing fewer Asian and White students to be admitted. The suit cites literature that reports Asian students need to earn significantly higher standardized test scores than Black students to be admitted to selective universities.
“Harvard requires much more of its Asian-American applicants than it requires of other races and ethnicities,” the suit says.
Unlikely coalition at Harvard
Raie Gessesse graduated from the Harvard Kennedy School earlier this year with a master’s degree in public policy. She’s back in the Twin Cities area working as a consultant.
“I am a little bit nervous and fearful for what [this decision could] mean for Harvard’s campus and for college campuses across the country, where, if we are no longer considering race, as but one factor in an admissions [process], people can fall through the cracks,” Gessesse said.
Gessesse added that she’d attended Harvard with Asian students who fought back against the idea that Black students are displacing Asian students at selective universities.
“I witnessed tons of really powerful coalitions between Black students and Asian students on campus, around how this is a myth. This has fundamentally been a myth. And it’s really unfortunate that this is the narrative being purported,” she said.
“Black students are at Harvard because we worked hard,” said Gessesse. She double majored in public health and political science at Hamline University and graduated in 2020. “Affirmative action is about ensuring a fair and holistic process, not granting additional advantage.”
A boon for HBCUs?
The Court’s decision could spur enrollment growth at HBCUs. Journalist and Howard University professor Nikole Hannah-Jones encouraged increased funding and support for the historic institutions in the aftermath of the ban, writing, “the Supreme Court has sent its message. Now, we must answer with our own.”
Though chronically underfunded, HBCUs punch well above their weight in establishing a pipeline to professional careers for Black students. HBCUs award 24 percent of all STEM-related bachelor’s degrees earned by Black Americans although they make up just three percent of all colleges and universities. They also send more Black students to medical schools than do predominantly White institutions.