Students for Fair Admissions, a non-profit representing students and others opposed to race-conscious admissions, sued Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, alleging their consideration of race in admissions violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. The plaintiffs also called for the Supreme Court to overturn Grutter v. Bollinger, which permitted holistic consideration of race, along with other factors, to ensure admission of underrepresented students of color to achieve a diverse student body.
Note: Both cases were heard on the same day. The cases were separated to allow Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson to participate in oral arguments for SFFA v. UNC. Justice Jackson is recused from hearing SFFA v. Harvard due to her membership on the Harvard Board of Overseers, which is one of two bodies that administer Harvard College.
Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard
Harvard’s holistic admissions process evaluates applicants on several factors. Applicants are evaluated in five areas: academics, extracurricular activities, athletics, school support (teacher and guidance counselor recommendations), and personal rating (character and potential impact on the community and fellow students). These ratings are then compiled into an overall score, which helps determine whether applicants move to the next round of selection.
After this step, regional admission subcommittees consider which applicants to recommend to the full admission committee for consideration. Race and other factors are considered in this decision, which can be disregarded by the full committee.
The full admissions committee then decides which applicants will tentatively be admitted. This committee then winnows down this group by a variety of factors, known as “tips” which can push an applicant into being accepted or rejected for admission. Admissions officers receive information on the applicants’ demographics, which include race, gender, intended major, applications for financial aid, and geographic region. The purpose of this information is to ensure there are no drastic changes in the composition of Harvard’s admitted class year to year. Harvard also considers whether an applicant is a recruited athlete, a legacy applicant, a child of faculty or staff, or a member of the “Dean’s Interest List.” Thirty percent of those admitted to Harvard fall into this latter group, despite making up just 5% of applicants each year.
The plaintiffs alleged that this consideration of race was a backdoor attempt to impose an illegal racial quota that discriminated against Asian- American applicants, making it harder for them to be admitted. The plaintiffs drew parallels with Harvard’s infamous attempt to covertly exclude Jews from the school during the 1920s by using subjective personal criteria. Since Harvard receives federal funding, it is subject to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which bans discrimination because of race, color, or national origin in programs receiving federal funding.
At trial, Harvard and the plaintiffs offered competing statistical analyses on the effects of Harvard’s policies on Asian American applicants. The district court, in its decision upholding Harvard’s admission policy, found that Asian -American applicants were less likely to be admitted than white applicants during the periods analyzed. However, Asian-American applicants scored higher on academic and extracurricular ratings than white applicants, while having lower personal rating scores than applicants who were not Asian-American. This discrepancy was subject to conflicting statistical explanations by both sides’ respective experts. The district court ruled that the evidence did not show intentional discrimination by Harvard against Asian American applicants and that Harvard’s policies satisfied strict scrutiny and were sufficiently tailored to create a diverse student body. The First Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district court’s ruling, and the plaintiffs sought and were granted, certiorari by the Supreme Court.
Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina
Like Harvard, the University of North Carolina (UNC), evaluates applicants in a multi-round process using a variety of factors. These factors, which include over 40 sub-categories, are grouped into eight categories: (1) academic program, (2) academic performance, (3) standardized testing, (4) extracurricular activities, (5) special talent, (6) essay, (7) background, and (8) personal attributes. Numerical scores are assigned to applicants for the first five categories, and the latter three categories are considered by admissions officers in the context of the applicant as a whole within the applicant pool. Admissions officers also consider the applicants’ socioeconomic backgrounds. Race and ethnicity may be considered throughout the entire process if disclosed in an application. Applications officers, known as readers, are divided into two tiers. Tier 1 readers assign ratings for the five scored categories and then recommend an applicant to be admitted, waitlisted, rejected, or evaluated by another reader. Applications that require a second reading are given to Tier 2 readers, who assess candidates across all categories. Admission decisions made by the readers are then reviewed again through a School Group Review process, which considers which high schools the applicants attended, class rank, GPA, test scores, residency, legacy, and first-generation college status, admissions ratings, fee waiver status, and student-athlete status. Race and ethnicity are not considered in this final step. This process aims to ensure compliance with state law on the proportion of out-of-state and in-state students at UNC and ensure the readers’ admissions decisions are consistent with the eight categories listed above.
SFFA alleged that UNC’s consideration of race discriminated against Asian and White applicants, requiring them to score significantly higher on GPA and test scores to be admitted and that this disparity was the result of race being a predominant factor in admissions, and presented expert testimony in support. UNC responded that race was a ‘plus’ factor, one of many considered during the admissions process, and presented competing expert evidence to support its assertion that race was not a predominant factor in admissions decisions.
On October 18, 2021, the district court upheld UNC’s admissions process, stating it satisfied strict scrutiny and that SFFA had failed to prove race was a predominant factor in admissions. SFFA then petitioned for a writ of certiorari from the Supreme Court, which was granted on January 24, 2022.
The LWVUS filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court led by the National Women’s Law Center and Linklaters LLP on August 1, 2022, along with 37 other organizations committed to racial and gender equality. The brief urged the Court to uphold previous Supreme Court precedent allowing race-conscious admissions and cited the numerous benefits of racial diversity on campuses. Among the benefits of diversity cited were countering harmful stereotypes of women of color, preparing students to work and interact in a diverse society, and fostering the exchange of ideas. The brief further asserted that race-neutral alternatives promoted by the plaintiffs would cause a significant decrease in diversity on college campuses, as demonstrated by the examples of Texas, California, and Michigan, which banned race-conscious admissions.
On June 29, 2023, in a 6-3 vote, the United States Supreme Court ruled that UNC and Harvard's current race-conscious admissions policies violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
SFFA files Complaint against Harvard
Students for Fair Admission (SFFA) files a lawsuit against Harvard, alleging its race-conscious admissions process violated the 14th Amendment and the Civil Rights Act
SFFA files Complaint against UNC
SFFA files a lawsuit against the University of North Carolina, alleging its race-conscious admissions process violated the 14th Amendment and the Civil Rights Act
US District Court of Massachusetts upholds Harvard's admissions process
The district court rules Harvard’s admission process satisfied strict scrutiny and was sufficiently tailored to ensure a diverse student body
First Circuit affirms district court’s ruling
A three-judge panel of the First Circuit Court of Appeals finds the district court did not err in upholding Harvard’s admissions process
SFFA petitions for Writ of Certiorari from US Supreme Court
SFFA appeals the First Circuit’s ruling to the Supreme Court, asking for it to overturn the decision and rule that race may not be considered in college admissions
North Carolina district court upholds UNC’s admissions process
The US District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina found that UNC’s interest in ensuring a diverse student body was sufficient to permit race-conscious admissions under strict scrutiny and that the statistical evidence presented at trial did not show racial discrimination by UNC
SFFA petitions for Writ of Certiorari from US Supreme Court
SFFA appeals the district court’s ruling upholding UNC’s race-conscious admissions process
Supreme Court grants the petition for a writ of certiorari
The Supreme Court grants the petition for a writ of certiorari
LWV and partners file amicus brief
The brief argues that race-conscious admissions are necessary to ensure the inclusion of women of color and create racially diverse student bodies. In turn, these prepare students for a diverse society, counter harmful stereotypes, and foster the exchange of ideas.