California banned affirmative action in public universities via a 1996 proposition, and voters upheld the ban in a 2020 vote. However, public colleges and universities in California are still allowed to factor in a student’s race as part of admissions.
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments Monday in two cases that question whether colleges and universities can continue to factor student race into admissions decisions. In particular, the court heard arguments in two cases challenging admissions practices at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
In 2003, the court ruled that colleges could indeed consider race in college admissions to help increase diversity on campuses. If the court ends up overturning the ruling, officials warn it could have a significant effect on California students who want to pursue admission at private universities.
“An unfavorable Supreme Court decision on the recent affirmative action in higher education cases could have a dramatic impact on California students,” Jessie Ryan, executive vice president of The Campaign for College Opportunity, told The Center Square in a statement. “If the Supreme Court were to initiate a federal ban on the consideration of race in admissions, California’s Black and Latinx students hoping to attend private colleges and universities could be turned away.”
While California’s public colleges, including those in the UC and CSU systems, would not be impacted by the ruling, the state’s top private colleges like Stanford University and the University of Southern California could be affected. Private college and university students make up roughly 15% of the state’s college undergraduate population, according to The Campaign for College Opportunity.
The conservative-majority court spent hours on Monday discussing the consideration of race in college admissions. Throughout the arguments, justices posed questions about “race-neutral alternatives” and pondered whether students could highlight experiences through essays.
At one point, Justice Clarence Thomas, who has opposed affirmative action programs in the past, challenged affirmative action defenders to “tell me what the educational benefits are,” as reported by the Associated Press.
The court’s newest member, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, noted that race is among 40 factors that the admissions office at UNC considers when reviewing an applicant. Jackson contended that the office is looking at the “full person with all these characteristics,” not just race alone.
Justices likely won’t deliver a decision on the two affirmative action cases until late Spring 2023.
Madison Hirneisen is a staff reporter covering California for The Center Square. Madison has experience covering both local and national news. She currently resides in Southern California.