Months before the Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments in two consolidated cases that could change the nature of affirmative action in higher education, over 80 companies have signed two amicus briefs to defend diversity in higher education.
Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard could have wide-ranging repercussions for higher education admissions beyond Harvard and the University of North Carolina, the two schools being sued. By signing on to these briefs, business and technology leaders have affirmed the importance of diversity in the workforce.
Education is supposedly the great equalizer, but equality has yet to be actualized. And yet, groups like Students for Fair Admissions swipe at efforts to improve opportunities for diverse groups of students.
Affirmative action ensures workplace diversity
Those supporting the use of race as a part of a holistic admissions process argue that because diversity is vital for business and industry, higher education institutions need to ensure meaningful diversity in the students admitted. Corporate supporters include Ikea, Google, Apple, Proctor & Gamble and Intel. (See the complete list here).
According to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the corporate signees represent over five million employees and trillions in annual revenue. The third brief from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, IBM and Aeris Communications spoke specifically to the importance of racial diversity within science and engineering. The brief also outlined how underrepresented students would be even more so if race were dropped as an admissions factor.
These briefs are among several being filed this week. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Asians Americans Advancing Justice filed an amicus brief on behalf of several Harvard students and Alumni. Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee, said the experiences of the diverse group of students and alumni make a case for affirmative action.
“Affirmative action appropriately widens the lens to identify merit, talent, and potential,” Hewitt said. “That doesn’t just benefit students of color who have been systematically denied equitable access to higher education—it benefits students from all backgrounds.”
Speaking with NewsOne, Michaele N. Turnage Young, senior counsel at LDF, said the filings are essential in providing the Court context for how these legal considerations operate in the real world.
“The Court knows the law, but the court might not have the real-life experience of what it’s like to work in a science and technology company, and really need a diverse pipeline of graduates to populate your company so that you can do the very best when it comes to technological innovation,” Turnage Young explained. “Having amici curiae weigh in on cases is about making sure that the court has the benefit of all the real-life experiences relevant to that particular case.”
Affirmative action cases could change college admissions
While the role of affirmative action has changed over the years, the fight over who is entitled to attend elite institutions persists. And the two cases involving Students for Fair Admissions could fundamentally change college admissions policies and opportunities for Black and other students of color.
Representing more than two dozen Harvard student and alumni organizations as amici curiae, Turnage Young said the filings are important and more can be expected.
“Affirmative action is really just the very limited consideration of race as one of the hundreds of factors that universities consider when deciding who to admit,” she explained. “The legal argument that we’ve made on behalf of our clients —25 Harvard student and alumni organizations— is that if colleges are to pursue the educational benefits of diversity, they need to be in a position to have the freedom to assemble a class that is diverse along many lines, including racial diversity.”
Shruthi Kumar, co-president of the Harvard South Asian Association, told NewsOne that having race considered as a factor in admissions provides an opportunity to showcase their full selves. Kumar explained that without understanding her background, experiences have a completely different meaning and relevance if carried out by a different student.
David Lewis, Havard Black Student Association’s political chair, argued that considering race is necessary as part of a holistic admissions process.
“Race-conscious admissions are so important to maintain the quality and fairness of education for everybody,” Lewis said. “When I’m in my social studies classes, discussing different social phenomena, I think when there are not multiple people of all backgrounds, ethnicities and races, the quality of the discussion is so much less. I think that we all benefit from diversity here.”
Affirmative action programs in higher education
Striking a balance in a holistic college admissions process has been a long evolving discourse. Different schools use different frameworks for determining which students to offer admission. This becomes a bigger issue at schools perceived as “selective” or “high value.”
But without affirmative action policies and programs, Black and Latino student enrollment could significantly drop at many institutions, potentially creating racialized tiers of higher education access. Turnage Young pointed to enrollment declines after California passed Proposition 209 in 1996.
“At Harvard, the experts estimate that if they are precluded from the limited consideration of race in admissions, the population of Black, Latinx, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students might plummet by nearly 50 percent,” Turnage Young said. “The state flagship universities there, so at UC Berkeley, you saw this decline in students of color, and the same happened at UCLA.”
According to a 2020 University of California, San Francisco study, almost 30 years after Proposition 209, there has been some “recovery” in Black and Latino student enrollment in California medical schools. But removing the use of race as a consideration created equity gaps that schools had to innovate to overcome. Instead of struggling to recover loss diversity gains, educational institutions could focus on improving student experiences and support.
Students thrive in a more diverse environment
Kumar and Lewis say the holistic admissions process provides a more robust academic experience. Kumar said businesses must show direct, tangible support for diversity beyond slogans and recognizing particular affinity months. If people want to support future leaders, they need to consider who they are supporting and how they provide that support.
“A world in which race-conscious admissions is illegal wouldn’t provide all young people with that equal chance of being in those positions,” Kumar said. “It’s influencing the future generations of who is going to be in these workforces, who’s going to be in leadership positions and what kind of a world is being created to make people feel comfortable, seen, welcomed and valued.
Lewis said that fairness and equity in opportunity for all are at stake in the cases before the Supreme Court in the fall. He also sees efforts to roll back college admissions as exacerbating persisting inequalities in power and wealth, limiting equal access to educational opportunities.
“It’s not just about the numbers on your application and how they compare,” he explained. “Numbers can never take into account the full holistic view of an applicant. We have to look at where they come from, what they persevered through to make those accomplishments and how they played a role and every single factor.”
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