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The Supreme Court's decision on affirmative action could affect more than just admissions

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Colleges, future students and their families are processing the Supreme Court's decision to ban affirmative action in the admissions process. The decision has the potential to affect colleges beyond who gets in and why. NPR's higher education correspondent Elissa Nadworny is here to explain. Welcome to the program.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Hey, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So how could this decision to ban race as a factor in admissions have an effect on, you know, like, other race-adjacent programs - like, say, scholarships for Black students or programs specifically for Latinos going into medicine?

NADWORNY: Yeah. Well, I mean, that was, and in many ways still is, a big concern among higher education experts. But the majority opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts was actually pretty narrow. He wrote that the admissions programs at Harvard and UNC were unlawful and that the school can't just check a box for race, so to speak. But he did not go further.

I talked with Liliana Garces, who studies education law at the University of Texas, Austin, and, you know, she believes this decision doesn't explicitly prohibit race-conscious decisions in those other areas that you're talking about, such as financial aid.

LILIANA GARCES: The only legal issue that was before the court was the consideration of race in admissions. It'll be important for institutions to hold their ground and be able to engage in those other practices that are absolutely foundational to their mission.

NADWORNY: I also spoke with Dominique Baker, a professor of education policy at Southern Methodist University, and she agreed with that assessment.

DOMINIQUE BAKER: We want to make sure that we don't overstate what the legal contours are, because that might create a chilling effect where institutions restrict themselves further than the legal limits.

RASCOE: So do states like California and Michigan, where affirmative action was already not allowed, show us what might happen nationally?

NADWORNY: They do. I talked with Kelly Slay about this. She's at Vanderbilt University. She studied what happened at the University of Michigan after the state banned affirmative action at state schools. Here's what she says.

KELLY SLAY: There was this kind of chilling effect where, you know, folks on campus weren't talking explicitly about race. Like, they were scared. They didn't know exactly what they could and what they couldn't do.

NADWORNY: One example she points to is a program at Michigan that was created to increase access and success for students of color. It's now mostly comprised of students who are white and come from lower-income backgrounds and rural communities. So a big kind of change there, even though that wasn't really included in the state ruling.

RASCOE: So what is the most effective way to get a diverse student body?

NADWORNY: Well, research has shown again and again that really nothing is as effective as considering race. There was this big research from Georgetown University. They did simulations to see kind of what would happen when they removed race and instead used combinations of things like high school grades or test scores or even socioeconomic indicators. They didn't make diverse classes.

RASCOE: So what happens now? Like, what will colleges use?

NADWORNY: So we can expect to see colleges focus more on the essay. In Chief Justice Roberts' opinion, he kind of left the door open on this, saying that students could talk about how race had impacted their lives when they applied. We'll also probably see an increase in recruitment to try and find students, expanded financial aid, including maybe some free college programs. Those, of course, you know, are going to take money. And then the other thing we may see going forward is more test-optional schools. So that's where schools are no longer requiring the SAT and ACT. That became pretty popular during the pandemic and has been shown to create more ethnic and racial diversity.

RASCOE: Using race in admissions has come up again and again in the courts. Will this victory for opponents of affirmative action actually be the end of it, or is it just the beginning?

NADWORNY: Yeah, it's a great question. I mean, the man behind both the Harvard and the UNC cases is a guy named Edward Blum. He's the founder and president of Students for Fair Admissions. In early court filings in the Harvard case, they were arguing that they wanted to, end, quote, "any use of race or ethnicity in the educational setting," not just in admissions. After this decision, Blum has promised to enforce the decision, saying his group is going to keep an eye on colleges to make sure that they are really following the law of this ruling.

RASCOE: NPR's Elissa Nadworny, thank you so much for joining us.

NADWORNY: You bet. Thanks, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.