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  • Anya Pathak

The Impact of Affirmative Action on College Admissions

Affirmative action, as it applies to college admissions, commonly refers to a policy aimed at increasing the number of students from historically underrepresented backgrounds on campus. It was conceived in an attempt to address the historic and systemic discrimination in our society, in which college admissions also played a role.

Even though Affirmative Action has been the subject of several legal debates since its inception, colleges have used the policy in student admissions, resulting in increased enrollment of diverse students. For example, Harvard University’s enrollment of Black and Hispanic students increased from less than 5% to around 27% over the course of the last 40 years. However, on June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court ruled against race-conscious admissions in U.S. colleges, stating that Affirmative Action as a policy violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.

Since the ruling, several academic officials have stated that the Supreme Court’s decision is regrettable and will lead to reduced opportunities for minorities, slowing down the nation's progress toward racial equality. When California banned race, gender, or ethnicity-based admissions by voting into law Prop 209 in 1996, the percentage of Black students enrolled in UC Berkeley fell from 6.7% to 3.7% in 1998, an approximately 45% drop in enrollment in just two years, despite an increase in the number of applications.

In light of the decision, colleges and universities are looking for alternative options to assemble a diverse class of students and are emphasizing personal essays as key pieces of this year’s application process. Many colleges are requiring supplemental essays asking students about aspects of their upbringing, cultural background, or how they will contribute to diversity and inclusion on campus. While this is not meant to become a substitute for the racial "checkbox", it still enables colleges and universities to promote diversity while theoretically maintaining a “race-neutral” approach.

The use of essay prompts with words and phrases such as “identity” and “life experience” in these supplemental questions places greater emphasis on individual differences among applicants.

For example, the Johns Hopkins University prompt is “Tell us about an aspect of your identity or a life experience that has shaped you.” Many of the essay prompts used this year by selective colleges are intended to ensure that college essays remain an open doorway for students to express who they are. By including personal stories and examples of how their race has influenced their unique life experiences, students can explain how they may have overcome stereotypes and biases and/or promoted diversity and inclusion.

How will the Supreme Court decision on Affirmative Action affect Edgemont’s college applicants?

To assess the impact of the new changes on our school community, I surveyed several seniors. One senior said, “The end of Affirmative Action helps me, because it has been said that, for most minorities, having to list your ethnicity is harmful to your college applications. Not having to tell colleges my ethnicity makes me feel more secure in the fact that I will be fairly judged when I apply.” Another student stated, “The only impact that I see that it could have on me is that whichever college I end up going to will be less diverse as a result, which will make my educational experience less well-rounded.”

Overall, the current seniors’ answers collectively suggest that the future of diversity in colleges remains uncertain. My survey also showed that changes to the familiar admission process have increased stress levels among seniors as application deadlines approach.

The Department of Education and the Department of Justice under the Biden administration released guidelines this August to help universities update their admissions policies to ensure compliance with the Supreme Court’s ruling. However, these guidelines do not discuss financial aid and race-based scholarships, and there is, of course, more to learn about the full scope and impact of the Supreme Court’s decision to end Affirmative Action.

At EHS, our rigorous curriculum effectively prepares our high school students for competitive admissions year after year. I am certain that the Class of 2024 will fare well.


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