What’s at stake for California schools as Supreme Court takes affirmative action in college admissions

If the conservative-majority Supreme Court, as widely predicted, bans race-based affirmative action in cases to be heard Monday, it will follow in the footsteps of relatively liberal California, whose voters banned any consideration of race in admissions to state colleges and other governments . programs when they approved Proposition 209 in 1996 with a 55% majority. For good measure, this decision was confirmed by a 57% vote in November 2020.

But Prop. 209 applied only to public universities and not to private schools such as Stanford, the University of Southern California, and the University of San Francisco. Because those schools, like nearly all institutions of higher education, receive federal funds, they would be affected by a ruling that taking an applicant’s race into account violates federal law — an issue the court will consider in the Harvard University case, one of two on Monday’s paper .

“California’s private colleges and universities are still allowed to consider student race as a factor in admissions, and those institutions enroll over 350,000 students each year,” said Michele Siqueiros, president of the Campaign for College Opportunity, a nonprofit that advocates for better access. to colleges in California. “The decisions of the Supreme Court in the cases before it would have significant implications for students who aspire to any of the private institutions in the state.”

Anthony Lising Antonio, an associate professor of education at Stanford, said a court could limit the scope of a ruling against affirmative action when it finds it violates a student’s right to equal protection under the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment. That would only affect government institutions, such as the University of North Carolina, whose case is being heard separately, and an affiliate of the University of California, which is already covered by Prop. 209.

But if the court rules that Harvard’s preferential treatment of black and Latino applicants violates a federal law, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination in federally funded programs, “then it applies to any entity that receives federal funding, which of course it includes private institutions like Stanford, USF and Caltech,” Antonio said. “That’s why many are collectively holding their breath, although the outcome seems quite predictable.”

When the court allowed a review of both cases in January, attorney Daniel Morenoff, an opponent of affirmative action, said evidence over the past two decades showed that “schools could end race-conscious admissions and increase the diversity of the student body.” Morenoff represents the California Equal Rights Foundation, which campaigned successfully in 2020 to retain the state’s affirmative action ban.

The court narrowly upheld the University of Michigan Law School’s affirmative action program in a 2003 case
Grutter v. Bollinger, judgment
5-4 that the school considered each applicant individually and was entitled to consider race to promote diversity. But Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, author of the majority opinion, wrote a separate opinion joined by two colleagues, saying she assumed racial considerations would no longer be needed in 25 years.

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