EDUCATION, BUSINESS, AND government entities in the Bay State expressed outrage and despair at the US Supreme Court decision striking down the use of race in college admissions, which sets up an uncertain path to boosting diversity across schools and workforces.
The court considered two cases challenging affirmative action – at Harvard and the University of North Carolina – and concluded along ideological lines that such policies violate the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection.
Responses varied. Congressional leaders like Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Ayanna Pressley called for expanding the Supreme Court. Educators and business leaders are grasping for ways to encourage marginalized groups to enter higher educational institutions and the workforce through targeted recruitment and addressing other systemic barriers to attainment like financial instability.
“We want to make sure that students of color, LGBTQ+ students, first-generation students, and all students historically underrepresented in higher education feel welcomed and valued at our colleges and universities,” the Healey-Driscoll administration and over 100 educators, advocates, and elected officials wrote in a joint statement. The decision “will not change our commitment to these students. We have an imperative to make sure our schools reflect our communities. Our academic competitiveness, the future of our workforce, and our commitment to equity demand we take action.”
Anticipating the court’s decision, the Healey administration and education leaders earlier this month announced an Advisory Council for the Advancement of Representation in Education. The group, composed of educators, civil rights advocates, and students, will spend the next year coordinating with educational institutions on possible responses to the decision and reviewing other ways to boost representation in schools.
But the shark fin of lower court decisions is circling. As CommonWealth reported, the affirmative action ruling could implicate even policies that use other admission factors as proxies for race if the underlying intent of the policies is to diversify the student body.
US Supreme Court justices could take up a case challenging a selective admissions policy in Virginia, which awarded high school admission to top students from each middle school in the area. Boston, too, is being sued for 2020 changes to policies that admitted students to its exam schools by grade ranking and zip code.
For now, Lawyers for Civil Rights argues that the Supreme Court ruling allows space for race-neutral alternatives to achieve diversity on campuses, including recruiting based on income and socioeconomic background, using criteria like home and school zip codes in admissions decisions, and implementing GPA-based admission guarantees for top students from each high school in the state.
There are still some options for universities using “holistic” admissions standards. Writing for the six-member majority, Justice John Roberts said “nothing prohibits universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected the applicant’s life, so long as that discussion is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability that the particular applicant can contribute to the university.”
The court’s decision will be felt far outside educational institutions. Business leaders condemned the ruling, which “not only threatens the future of higher education, but also the future of our workplaces and business community,” said Jim Rooney, president and CEO of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. “By limiting the efforts to diversify campuses across the country, employers will have a less diverse pipeline for the recruitment and hiring of employees.”
It is not just a moral stance, Associated Industries of Massachusetts CEO John Regan and President Brooke Thomson said. “We know that diverse voices lead to better business outcomes and plan to continue to emphasize equity in the private sector,” they said in a joint statement.
The business community may be able to fill in some of the diversity gaps by prioritizing equity in apprenticeship programs and diversity in suppliers, as well as more abstract actions like actively championing “the next generation of leaders,” Rooney said.
Lawmakers are also sharpening their knives to go after other preferential admissions systems. State Sen. Lydia Edwards testified this week on her bill to ban legacy preferences in higher education, arguing that these policies disproportionately advantage certain groups of people regardless of personal or academic merit. According to data released through the Harvard lawsuit, legacy students are more likely to be White and affluent and much more likely to be accepted than non-legacies.
“In many cases affirmative action became the scapegoat for aggrieved, usually White, students who felt they were not allowed to get into a school, and they blamed students of color and affirmative action,” Edwards told the joint higher education committee, even though White students are more likely to be the ones boosted in the admissions process “if they were qualified by legacy preference.”