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Plotting the Way Forward

AU panel discussion explores the consequential impact of the Supreme Court decision on college admissions

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Lia Epperson (left) and Sara Clarke Kaplan

Three months after the Supreme Court decision that upended affirmative action in college admissions, Sara Clarke Kaplan, executive director of AU’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center, told community members to keep a close eye on the consequential impact of the ruling. 

“This is a moment where it’s easy to want to move on so quickly from the decision itself, to try and solve the problems, that we can miss the fact that this is not simply a decision about college admissions, though it is primarily that,” Kaplan said during a September 26 community forum. “It is a red flag about a particular shift in racial-political formations that we all have to be extraordinarily wary of.” 

Kaplan joined Washington College of Law professor Lia Epperson for a panel discussion moderated by WCL dean Roger Fairfax about how higher education moves forward and what the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard and SFFA v. UNC ruling does—and doesn’t—mean. 

Epperson, an expert in constitutional law, civil rights, and education policy, explained that the majority opinion of the Supreme Court found that the consideration of race—one of several factors in a holistic admissions process—violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. 

Striking down 45 years of precedent, that decision fundamentally changes how admissions committees can evaluate prospective students. But it does not apply to other aspects of how higher education operates, including scholarship programs; diversity, equity, and inclusion programs; and hiring practices. 

Epperson said admissions committees can still consider how race has impacted the lives of applicants—and that the ruling won’t dissuade universities from acting on their values when it comes to access and opportunity. 

“Those two pieces are actually quite important,” Epperson said. “When we’re talking about what the decision means for colleges and universities and for admissions processes in particular, the majority of the court was clear—and not just in a sort of granted dissenting opinion—that universities are free to follow their missions, which, quite frankly, for many, if not most colleges and universities in 2023, includes a mission of ensuring that these pathways of opportunity are open and accessible to all.” 

Kaplan spoke to student concerns and encouraged students of color to both keep applying and continue providing their racial demographics on applications, which could help evaluate potential future discrimination cases. At the same time, she called the need for applicants of color to frame the impact of race on their lives as a “performance of adversity” a “deeply problematic notion.”

“We are now asking students of color, in order to be admitted, to perform this kind of narrative of uplift and bootstrapping, of oppression and overcoming, of victimization and loss, and trauma in order to be seen as a valuable contributor with a seat at the table,” Kaplan said. “We do not ask other people to do that.”  

So how does higher education proceed? Kaplan said colleges and universities must think creatively about how to counterbalance what the court decision could signal. This includes a renewed focus on ways to recruit, and more importantly, retain diverse students. 

“One of the things we know when admissions numbers go down is that we lose critical mass,” Kaplan said. “For anyone who has not been a deeply, deeply underrepresented, minoritized person in any space—whatever space it is—I think it’s hard for you to fully estimate how hostile and alienating that environment can be. The less Black and brown schools get, the harder it is for them to recruit Black and brown students.” 

While the court’s decision is firm, Epperson said the legal battle isn’t over. More cases could challenge the consideration of race in other ways, including recruitment, partnerships, pipeline programs, and scholarships. 

“The idea that on the one hand, the Supreme Court decision in the Harvard and UNC cases is narrow, in that it is limited to college and university admissions processes that take account of race, is true. That is what the legal holding is,” Epperson said. “The movement that articulated this case against admissions will continue.” 

Read the statement from AU president Sylvia Burwell after the Supreme Court Decision in June.