After more than two decades of affirmative action, the Supreme Court dealt a heavy blow to race-based college admissions Thursday and ruled against Harvard and the University of North Carolina in separate cases. The court voted 6-3 in the University of North Carolina case, and 6-2 in the Harvard case, with Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson recusing herself.
“Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the opinion for the majority.
“Eliminating racial discrimination means eliminating all of it,” he added.
Justices John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett voted with the majority in both cases.
The plaintiffs, Students for Fair Admissions, had accused Harvard and the University of North Carolina of unfairly factoring race into their admissions processes. They argued that Harvard violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and the University of North Carolina violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Jackson wrote dissents, with Sotomayor accusing the majority of “further entrenching racial inequality in education.”
“Today, this Court stands in the way and rolls back decades of precedent and momentous progress,” Sotomayor wrote, adding that the court “cements a superficial rule of colorblindness as a constitutional principle in an endemically segregated society where race has always mattered and continues to matter.”
The justices had previously questioned the merits of race-based admissions during opening arguments, sparking speculation that they would rule against affirmative action. Arguments in Grutter v. Bollinger, a 2003 case, were also referenced, in which the court ruled that the University of Michigan Law School may consider race in its admissions process. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said at the time that “we expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary.”
The ruling resolves a pair of cases from students against Harvard and the University of North Carolina and leaves hundreds of universities, that consider race in admissions and scholarship decisions, scrambling to find non-race-related ways to replace affirmative action.
It may also spark future legal challenges from affirmative action supporters, though a recent Reuters poll revealed that a majority of Americans, 62%, oppose race-based college admissions.
Regardless, it’s clear that the Supreme Court’s ruling has upended the admissions process at universities across the country and the implications of this decision will have far-reaching consequences for generations of college students to come.