Feature

Supreme Shift: Tufts Admissions Post-Affirmative Action

ART BY AUDREY NJO

Over the summer, the world of higher education received news that would alter the landscape of college admissions forever: the Supreme Court had ruled to end race-conscious admission programs at colleges and universities. Since the 1978 ruling in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the Supreme Court has allowed colleges and universities to consider the race of applicants in admissions in an effort to remedy the underrepresentation of minorities in higher education. It’s a precedent that has been upheld many times since, such as in the 2003 case Grutter v. Bollinger and in the 2013 and 2016 cases Fisher v. University of Texas. It came as a shock to many, then, that after 45 years of legal precedence, the Supreme Court had changed its tune on affirmative action. 

“It was extremely disheartening to see that we’re regressing in society when it comes to social and racial equality,” said senior Suzune Montag. “The effects of discrimination start as early as preschool, as kids in low-income neighborhoods have less well-funded schools and are more likely to be discriminated against by teachers. These issues [develop] into the inequalities we see in higher education today, and affirmative action is necessary to rectify these systemic inequalities.”

Senior Michelle Zhang expressed a similar sentiment, saying that “race really impacts every sector of your life.” To Zhang, affirmative action is a valid and beneficial method of determining class admission. “[Race] really does matter” when it comes to admissions, because “when you’re doing admissions, you don’t see the actual person, you just see the name, you just see the things on paper,” Zhang said, suggesting that race-conscious admissions add necessary context to college applications.

So what was the reasoning behind this reversal? The case presented to the court was brought by Students for Fair Admissions, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization founded in 2014 by conservative activist Edward Blum. The organization argued that using race as a factor in admissions policies violates the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause by placing white and Asian students at a disadvantage compared to Black and Brown students. The court’s 6-3 conservative majority agreed with their assertion. It was a decision that runs counter to public opinion, as 63 percent of adults believe that the Supreme Court should not prohibit colleges and universities from considering race during admissions. Regardless of public opinion, the court remained adamant that its ruling would level the playing field of college admissions. The court also wrote a three sentence exception at the end of the ruling for the nation’s military academies which can continue considering race in admissions because of “potentially distinct interests.”

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion for the six conservative justices, arguing that “Many universities have for too long… concluded, wrongly, that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned but the color of their skin.” According to the conservative majority, “Our constitutional history does not tolerate that choice.”

Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote dissenting opinions to the court’s majority ruling. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the court’s first Black female justice, disagreed with the logic behind the decision. She wrote, “With let-them-eat-cake obliviousness, today, the majority pulls the ripcord and announces ‘colorblindness for all’ by legal fiat.” Jackson continued that the “ruling makes things worse, not better. The best that can be said of the majority’s perspective is that it proceeds (ostrich-like) from the hope that preventing consideration of race will end racism. But if that is its motivation, the majority proceeds in vain.”

Even before the SCOTUS ruling, there has historically been a stark drop in minority admissions in places where affirmative action has been eliminated. One such example is at the University of California, Berkeley in 2016 and 2017, when a state referendum banned the use of race in admissions. This was also observed by researchers after affirmative action was banned in Texas, Washington, and Florida in the 1990s.

Supporters of affirmative action argue that there is one glaring problem with the ruling: colleges can still use metrics for admissions that disadvantage minority students, such as preferences for legacy admissions, athletes, and children of staff or faculty. This claim is backed by a multitude of examples, but one that made waves in American society was the 2019 college admissions scandal. This case highlighted how children from affluent families have used both legal and illegal means to get accepted into higher education institutions, effectively putting them at an even greater advantage over their lower-income counterparts. Shortly after the court’s ruling, Lawyers for Civil Rights filed a lawsuit using this reasoning on behalf of the Chica Project, the African Community Economic Development of New England, and the Greater Boston Latino Network. Their lawsuit alleges that the students who receive that preferential treatment—children of donors and legacies—are “overwhelmingly white,” and make up as much as 15 percent of admitted students. Shortly thereafter, the US Department of Education began an ongoing civil rights investigation into whether Harvard University discriminates in its admissions process by giving preference to legacy students. 

In a written statement to the Observer, senior Victor Aguilar explained his problem with allowing preferential treatment in admissions to continue, saying that his peers at private high school “expected to go to college, [but] I had to fight for a chance to get there. College admissions filter students for universities, and historically filter students of color out. Affirmative action gave us a chance; it gave us hope. The money points to reasons behind protecting legacy and athlete admissions. Athlete admissions are a grayer area, but legacy admissions are unnecessary.”

Critics of affirmative action have suggested that there are other factors for consideration that could increase the diversity of undergraduate classes, but admission administrators across the country say that schools that have tried to raise the numbers of Black and Latino students without any consideration of race have found that no other criterion is as effective at increasing diversity. 

Affirmative action is still practiced based on criteria other than race. Many historically male-dominated programs grant affirmative action to women, which has greatly increased the percentage of (predominantly white) women who receive college degrees. Today, young women are more likely to enroll in college than their male counterparts, and women 25 and older are more likely to earn a college degree. A significant cause of this discrepancy is personal choice; 34 percent of men say the reason they did not attend college was because they simply did not want to (compared to roughly 25 percent of women), while 44 percent of non-college educated women say it was due to financial reasons (compared to 39 percent of men). However, some experts point to the current gender gap in college education as evidence that the largest beneficiaries of affirmative action have been white women.

Despite this, the affirmative action debate has historically been centered on race-conscious admissions. When someone brings up the term “affirmative action” in a political debate, it is often assumed that they mean race-conscious admissions, despite the fact that gender-conscious affirmative action remains intact in many male-dominated spaces, such as engineering or other STEM-based programs. Gender-conscious affirmative action, or any other form of diversity-conscious admissions, such as admitting students from underrepresented states, is currently not subject to the same level of scrutiny as race-conscious affirmative action. Some experts have posited that the intense focus on race within the issue suggests that the pushback against affirmative action is part of a conscious effort to reduce racial progress in particular. 

Given the court’s June ruling, universities including Tufts will be forced to reimagine the programs and strategies they use to consider thousands of applicants in the coming years. In an email sent to the university from the Office of the President on June 29, former president Tony Monaco and current president Sunil Kumar jointly wrote that “nothing the court said today will change our institutional values and our commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.” In that same email, the university shared that “a working group of internal stakeholders and external experts has been meeting… [this group], along with a newly formed executive strategy group, will be analyzing the court’s decision and reasoning to create a specific plan that will continue our diversity efforts while respecting the law.” 

While universities can’t explicitly use proxies for race anymore, they may use other factors to create a diverse environment, such as considering the zip codes where students live. Additionally, students will still be allowed to write about their lived experiences with race and ethnicity in their personal essays.

When asked what she thought Tufts should do in response to the decision, Montag said the university should follow in the footsteps of other elite institutions by incorporating “an optional supplemental essay through which students can discuss aspects of their background or identity that they believe are important.” Montag believes the addition of this essay question could benefit the Tufts admissions pool, saying that, “because there is a lot of nuance when it comes to encouraging diversity, a question like that would bring more to the story and allow admissions committees to support students from all backgrounds and encourage diversity.”

At Tufts, conversations about the role of race in admissions date back to the 1960s, when the university made “a considered decision to increase the social, geographic, and ethnic diversity of the undergraduate student body,” according to Light on the Hill, the second volume of the history of Tufts University published in 1986. It was not until a record of the racial and ethnic background of all students was required by the federal government, effective in 1968-69, that “the ‘numbers game’ became a popular indoor sport.” In 1965, then university president Nils Yngve Wessell made his annual report to the trustees calling for greater minority representation in the student body and on the faculty, at a time when the number of black students stood at 25. By 1967-68, the number doubled. Over time, the number of minority students admitted slowly increased, especially those of Asian and Puerto Rican heritage. 

According to the same issue of Light on the Hill, the composition of the student body shifted greatly over the 1970s and 1980s not only with regards to race, but also class, as “the great bulk of the students came from higher economic and social strata than ever before by the end of the Hallowell administration.” Once predominantly Protestant middle and lower class, the new composition of undergraduates began to reflect the contemporary “more religiously differentiated and ethnically mixed student body.” 

Since then, Tufts admissions’ office has had a steady increase in the number of minority students enrolled in each class, with the latest class of 2027 including, of admitted U.S. students, 57 percent students of color. However, the shift to students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds that occurred under the Hallowell administration during the 1960s and 1970s remains true today, with 77 percent of the student body coming from households in the top 20 percent of the income earners and the median family income of a student at Tufts being $224,800. When it comes to encouraging diversity, a question like that would bring more to the story and allow admissions committees to support students from all backgrounds and encourage diversity.

It will take time before accurate observations about the impact of the overturning on the Tufts student body can be made. Historical precedent suggests that minority admissions may drop dramatically, but the extent will likely vary across institutions. The decision’s impact on individual campuses largely depends on the goals and efforts made by each university. A university that makes no extra effort to admit racial minorities following the ruling will likely face a more significant drop than a university that chooses to take zip codes or lived experiences into account. 

Whether Tufts will stay true to Monaco and Kumar’s statement remains to be seen. Prior to the decision, the Tufts student body was becoming increasingly racially diverse; 44.7 percent of the current senior class of 2024 identify as non-white (6.5 percent of whom are Black), compared to 57 percent of the class of 2027 (12 percent of whom are Black). This increase suggests that Tufts employed race-conscious admissions to create an increasingly diverse student body. However, under the new ruling, the Tufts admissions team may have to make a concerted effort to foster this trend, or it could soon fall by the wayside. 

Zhang believes Tufts will fall short of continuing to promote diversity in substantive ways. Zhang points toward the fact that, although the percentage of Asian American students has increased, the funding the Asian American Center receives has stayed the same. “Even if there is a subgroup dedicated towards students of color on this campus, regardless, they still have to fight for their ability to exist,” Zhang said. 

It remains to be seen whether the administration, under Kumar, will develop a new plan that effectively promotes diversity on campus in a post-affirmative action world. However, Tufts may choose to forgo this and adopt the legal statute. 

This year’s Regular Decision applications close on January 4, while Early Decision results are released in mid-December. The impending outcomes of the admissions for the class of 2028 will shed light onto the initial impacts of overturning affirmative action, and how it will affect the makeup of the matriculating class come next September.