What the Possible Overturning of Grutter v. Bollinger Means for Students of Color

On October 31, 2022, the Supreme Court heard the oral arguments for Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard University and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina. The Court is set to decide whether or not to overrule its 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, which protects the Affirmative Action policy, thus permitting universities to use racial preference in admissions to promote diversity. The plaintiffs argue that through their use of Affirmative Action in admissions processes, Harvard University and UNC-Chapel Hill hold Asian American students to a higher standard than other students, ultimately hurting their chances of admission due to their race. They claim that admissions officers are using the stereotype that Asians are incredibly intelligent, high achieving, studious, and academically rigorous, unfairly setting a higher standard for them. 

The Students for Fair Admissions contend that Harvard University is violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits race-based discrimination by any higher education institution receiving federal financial assistance. They also maintain that UNC-Chapel Hill is violating the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, intended to provide an equal application of the law. These cases, which used to be amalgamated, were recently severed by the Court after the appointment of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black female Justice to hear a case argued at the Supreme Court. 

Because of how confidential and ambiguous the nature of the college admissions process is, it is difficult to discern if universities are being blatantly biased. According to an analysis submitted by Affirmative Action opponents, assuming similar credentials, the admission rates of Asian American students were lower than other races. A study at Princeton University revealed similar findings, showing that Asian students need to receive 140 points higher on the SAT than white students, and 450 points higher than Black students, to have an equal chance of admission. 

While Harvard University and the University of North Carolina are the only universities being sued, the decision of the Supreme Court will affect all colleges. Depending on the outcome of the decision, universities may have to alter their admissions processes, no longer considering race as a component of their admissions. Consequently, it can be assumed that the abolishment of Affirmative Action will also imply a substantial drop in students of color at elite universities, and could also make it far more difficult for employers to take necessary steps to diversify the workforce close the racial wealth gap.

At the hands of a conservative majority Court, Affirmative Action—serving as an anti-racist reform—and the Constitutional promise of “equal protection of the lawsare in danger. At the hearing on October 31, longtime critics of Affirmative Action and conservative Justices have denied the validity of Affirmative Action as a whole, signifying that race-conscious decisions in admissions to higher education are unlawful. 

It is no secret that compared to students who come from privileged, white, and wealthy backgrounds, minority students are at a disadvantage in being admitted to higher-ranked institutions. The overturning of Grutter v. Bollinger—which currently serves as a 40-year-old legal precedent—will likely rob many minority students (with an emphasis Black and Latino students) who depend on affirmative action of an equal opportunity to attain higher education. 

We must understand that Affirmative Action is necessary to correct a long history of systemic racism within the education system. Affirmative Action does not give students in marginalized groups an unfair advantage for admissions, but rather enables the enrichment of the educational experience of those who have not had equal resources in comparison to white students. Therefore, it is imperative that race-conscious admission decisions are upheld. With a 6-3 conservative-liberal ratio in the Court, the question develops beyond whether or not Affirmative Action will be abolished. Now, the question is to what extent it may disappear. And, with elite universities under the gun now, another question must be considered: are workplaces next?