The Supreme Court once considered Harvard’s admissions policies exemplary, even though they were far from perfect. While we despair at the Court’s striking of race-conscious admissions, Harvard must now rise to the occasion and establish a truly praiseworthy model for higher education admissions.
June 30, 2023
After almost a decade of litigation pitting two of the oldest universities in the country against an organization hell-bent on ending race-based affirmative action, the Supreme Court has spoken: Race-conscious admissions in higher education are over.
We now find ourselves in a state of utter post-affirmative action loss. A loss for our University, a loss for progress, and a loss for our nation resound in the aftermath of this decision.
The Court’s majority opinion in Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. President & Fellows of Harvard College holds that the admission processes at Harvard and the University of North Carolina violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. This contrasts with the Court’s precedents allowing universities to consider applicants’ race in admissions decisions — precedents in which justices cited Harvard’s admissions system as an exemplary model.
The Court’s total pivot on Harvard’s admissions policies lays bare the issues that have always existed within our University’s implementation of affirmative action. We are forced to confront the question: How preciously does Harvard actually prize diversity?
Harvard’s now-unconstitutional consideration of race in admissions involved measuring the student body using six categories. We find ourselves in agreement with the Court’s majority opinion on the single point — a narrow point of alignment within a decision that we otherwise find to be reeking of a repulsive “let-them-eat-cake obliviousness” to systemic racism, per Associate Justice Ketanji Brown-Jackson ’92 — that this method of consideration is inadequate. No racial group is a monolith; these six labels are insufficient to capture the varied experiences of the individuals classified under them.
Given this coarse-toothed categorization, it’s not surprising that Generational African Americans may make up as little as 10 percent of Black students at Harvard — a statistic much grimmer than the topline figure that Black students represent 15.3 percent of students in the Class of 2027. This underrepresentation of a historically marginalized sub-group showcases Harvard’s ignorance of the necessary reparative element of affirmative action in a country with enduring systemic racial inequalities in education.
And then there’s the socioeconomic diversity problem: If Harvard was truly sincere about cultivating a diverse student body, it would transparently and vocally ensure that students come from varied economic backgrounds. Instead, published statistics about socioeconomic diversity are virtually nonexistent; we are forced to rely on unofficial counts that suggest the school is epically failing, like economist Raj Chetty’s finding that Harvard had 23 times as many higher-income students as lower-income students at the turn of the millennium.
Some of these problems provided fodder for the Court’s majority to critique Harvard’s admission process, and to dismiss affirmative action as a reasonable policy to achieve diversity in higher education. But make no mistake: Harvard’s lackluster policies are not to blame for the recent ruling, and the Court’s decision does not at all undermine the importance of a racially diverse student body.
Given the Supreme Court’s conservative posse, race-conscious admissions policies were living on borrowed time. In many regards, the decision was inevitable — almost preordained. To this end, we are grateful for the students and organizers who, despite the odds, rallied in defense of diversity in higher education.
As the next application cycle approaches, Harvard must radically reimagine its methods of cultivating diversity in its student body — this time, without the glaring gaps. Administrators can affirm the abstract importance of diversity in stilted statements all they want, but we still need to see concrete changes.
Harvard can now live up to the exemplary role the Court once said it modeled. One first step is obvious: Our school must finally end legacy admissions, which have disproportionately benefited wealthy white students for far too long.
Harvard and other universities must also begin seriously considering applicants’ socioeconomic status in admissions. Household wealth profoundly affects applicants’ identities and experiences; admitting more low-income applicants contributes to a richer tapestry of backgrounds in the student body.
Considering socioeconomic status instead of race won’t achieve the same racially diverse outcomes that affirmative action once helped promote because racial disparities exist beyond class. Yet household wealth is at least a partial proxy for race, and greater attention to it in admissions decisions could help restore some of the racial diversity eroded by the Court’s latest ruling, while simultaneously cultivating much-needed socioeconomic diversity at America’s oldest and richest university.
This decision is undoubtedly a depressing one. In tens of pages, six Supreme Court justices metaphorically ziptied Harvard’s hands behind its back, tightly curtailing its capacity to provide the enriching experience of a College education to those who might benefit from it most.
University administrators pledging their commitments to diversity must contend with this inescapable reality. Promoting racial diversity is never easy, and the Court’s handcuffed hold on higher education admissions hasn’t helped. Still, we demand that Harvard — and schools across the country — uphold the commitments to racial diversity they publicly espouse.
Several decades ago, the Supreme Court considered Harvard’s admissions policies exemplary, even though they were far from perfect. While we despair at the Court’s striking of race-conscious admissions, Harvard must rise to the occasion and establish a truly praiseworthy model for higher education admissions — one that creatively and resourcefully reimagines its historical shortcomings to help diversity in higher education outlive its Supreme Court-issued death-knell.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.