Colleges Can Still Seek Diversity


By Iván Espinoza-Madrigal


On June 29, while raising the bar on universities’ ability to consider race in admissions, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected calls to overrule its affirmative-action precedents. Most importantly, the court left the door open for admissions offices to consider how race may have shaped an applicant’s life, affirming that “nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.” 

In finding that Harvard’s and UNC’s admissions processes lacked “sufficiently focused and measurable objectives warranting the use of race,” the court’s ruling will undoubtedly require schools to reconfigure their policies. But the decision cannot be construed as an outright bar on race-conscious admissions. Key elements of the holistic admissions process for higher-education institutions remain in place. 

Throughout this challenge to Harvard’s policies, Lawyers for Civil Rights (LCR) has represented Harvard alumni and students of color as friends of the court (amici), emphasizing how Harvard’s holistic admissions process has led to a diverse campus that benefits all students. 

LCR is unequivocally committed to eliminating systemic barriers that harm communities of color. Far too many colleges and universities offer preferential treatment in the admissions process to the family members of alumni (so-called ‘legacies’) and donors, which typically results in an unearned and unfair advantage for white applicants and takes away admissions slots that could otherwise go to highly qualified and deserving students of color. 

As institutions assess how the college admissions process will work moving forward, it is important to continue to invest in pipeline projects designed to dramatically expand access to higher education for students of color.

The Supreme Court’s ruling leaves open the door for colleges to use race-neutral alternatives to achieve diversity on campus, including recruiting based on income and socioeconomic background, utilizing criteria such as home and school zip codes, investing heavily in efforts to admit first-generation college students and to make them feel at home on campus, and guaranteeing admission to graduates with the best grade-point averages from each high school within the state where the college or university is located, as schools such as the University of Texas have already successfully implemented.

These programs provide a concrete and lawful path forward.


Iván Espinoza-Madrigal is executive director of Boston-based Lawyers for Civil Rights.