In June 2023, the Supreme Court's rulings in SFFA v. Harvard and SFFA v. UNC dealt a significant blow to the affirmative action framework. These decisions have effectively restricted the ability of universities to consider an applicant's race in their admissions process. While proponents of these rulings argue that they uphold the principle of a "color-blind" society, it is essential to consider the broader implications of such a decision, particularly for other programs aimed at advancing equity.
The tide has begun to turn resulting in numerous rippling effects across various industries:
- Diversity in Higher Education: The elimination of affirmative action in college admissions may result in a decline in the diversity of student populations at some of the most elite institutions. This, in turn, could negatively impact the overall quality of education by limiting the perspectives and experiences that students are exposed to. The absence of diversity can hinder learning and growth, leaving all students at a disadvantage. On the contrary, this could be a pivotal opportunity for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) which boast a 25% enrollment rate of non-Black students.
- Pipeline Programs: Many universities have established pipeline programs to encourage underrepresented students to pursue higher education. These programs often work in tandem with affirmative action policies. With the latter now in question, the effectiveness of pipeline programs may be compromised, as they rely on the existence of equitable admissions processes. With the legal field significantly lacking in diversity – last year 11% of persons in the field identified as Hispanic, 9% Black, and 5% Asian, these pipeline programs offer a formidable gateway into this prestigious profession.
- Workplace Equity: Affirmative action has been a model for workplace equity programs, shaping the way companies approach diversity and inclusion. Although it remains perfectly legal for organizations to implement diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging programs, many companies appear to be skittish. In fact, over the last year, many Chief Diversity Officers (CDO), including the CDO for Disney, Netflix, and Warner Bros. Discover, have vacated those positions. Perhaps, because there hasn’t been complete buy-in or sufficient support provided. Companies are worried about being the next target of the affirmative action decision fallout. Those “that are still hiring CDOs want people who can help the board navigate the political and legal landscape of diversity work and figure out how to take defensive moves to shield them from litigation.” However, constantly operating from a defensive posture can be mentally exhausting and lead to burnout.
- Public Perception: The elimination of affirmative action may send a message that addressing historical and systemic discrimination is no longer a priority. This could discourage individuals from marginalized communities from pursuing higher education or seeking opportunities in fields where they are underrepresented. This has in fact happened as it relates to small businesses that had to temporarily pause applying for the US Small Business Association’s 8(a) Business Development Program, which also is facing legal challenges as a result of the decision.
The Supreme Court's decisions in SFFA v. Harvard and SFFA v. UNC have undoubtedly altered the landscape of college admissions. However, it is crucial to recognize that the impact extends beyond the admissions process. Affirmative action was just one piece of the puzzle in the pursuit of equity and inclusion. To address the broader issues of gender, pay, and race equity, we must continue to advocate for allyship, diversity, and programs that level the playing field for marginalized communities.