As widely predicted, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has lost its admissions case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Six of nine justices decreed that neither UNC nor any other university that receives government funds may discriminate on the basis of race when choosing its students.
That’s what UNC has been doing for decades. It routinely denied admittance to white and Asian students in favor of black and Hispanic students with lower test scores, grade-point averages, or extracurricular records. It did so in an attempt to engineer a distribution of racial and ethnic groups in the student body close to that of the general population.
University leaders believed this goal was so important that they were willing to flout federal statutes and constitutional provisions guaranteeing equal protection under the law. I think this was deeply misguided. Basing such critical decisions on the government’s crude racial and ethnic categories — Icelanders and Iranians are “white,” Punjabis and Filipinos are “Asian,” native African-Americans of mixed ancestry and recent immigrants from Nigeria are “black,” and so on — was never intellectually or morally defensible.
Now the practice is unambiguously illegal, too, as it has been for many years in states such as California, Texas, Florida, Washington, and Michigan where racial preferences were already prohibited by legislation, executive orders, or voter referenda.
Now, just to be clear, UNC’s admissions preferences never fully accomplished their intended goal. The Charlotte Ledger reports that of 5,300 students admitted to Chapel Hill last year, 65% were white, 22% were Asian, 10% were black and 10% were Hispanic (again, using the government’s crude classifications). The state’s population is 62% white, 4% Asian, 22% black and 11% Hispanic. Broadly speaking, Asians remained “overrepresented” and blacks “underrepresented.”
So, what’s going to happen now? Well, in the short term, the shares of new students identified as black or Hispanic are likely to drop a bit, the white share will rise a bit, and the Asian share will rise more than that.
What will happen to the students whose weaker academic qualifications will keep them from getting into Carolina? Here’s where the wobbly case for racial preferences collapses entirely. Those students will hardly be shut out of higher education. The vast majority will attend other institutions within the UNC system, or excellent private colleges, or comparable institutions in other states.
Is there something wrong with UNC-Charlotte, or Appalachian State University, or North Carolina Central University, or Lenoir-Rhyne University, or Meredith College? It just so happens that at least one member of my own family has attended each of these institutions. I obtained my graduate degree at UNC-Greensboro. I had a great experience and learned a lot.
In the short term, then, there will be somewhat of a redistribution of students within higher education, and that will be mostly benign or even beneficial (because students admitted to universities according to race-neutral criteria are more likely to major in more rigorous and lucrative disciplines, such as engineering or economics, and to graduate on time).
The long-term consequences are harder to predict, however. On the student side, the end of racial preferences may well encourage high schoolers to study harder and build stronger applications if they aspire to attend a highly selective university. Great!
On the other hand, academic officials may attempt to smuggle racial preferences back into the process, using strategically worded essay questions and other tricks. The Supreme Court majority specifically warned universities not to try this, but that may not be a sufficient deterrent. Many institutions will also try to lower their admissions criteria for everyone, including the elimination of standardized test scores. Not great!
Finally, universities will develop and implement legally permissible practices, such as mentoring and outreach programs or admissions preferences for poor applicants or first-generation college students. California and Texas already use them, though the effects on racial and ethnic composition are neither uniform nor huge.
The case is finally over. Now, let’s focus on expanding educational opportunity for all.