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The Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action, explained

Katelyn Ryu / The Daily Princetonian

The Supreme Court came to a long-awaited decision on affirmative action yesterday. In a sweeping 6–3 opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, it held that colleges cannot consider race as a factor when making admissions decisions. 

The Daily Princetonian dove into the decision to help you understand what might come next. 


What exactly did the Supreme Court decide? 

The decision means that affirmative action is dead: any American universities that accept federal funding, whether they are private or public institutions, are forbidden to take students’ race into account as part of their holistic admissions process. Many selective private institutions had previously given advantages to Black and Latine applicants, with rationales varying from reflecting the diversity of American society, to making amends for past and ongoing race discrimination. 

The Court found that the Harvard and University of North Carolina admissions processes violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which ensures equal protection under law for all Americans. This means that going forward, federally funded institutions will face a high bar if they want to make any race-based classifications. Their policies must satisfy the “strict scrutiny” test, which means that it is “furthering compelling government interests” and that its methods are “narrowly tailored” to that end. Few admissions policies considering race will pass this test.

What are some of the important nuances to understand here? 

This decision may not spell the end for race in college admissions entirely. Towards the end of his majority opinion, Chief Justice Roberts admitted that applicants can still discuss “how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise” in their personal essays. As long as applicants are judged by their character traits in relation to their racial identity, universities need not be so colorblind that they forbid mention of race altogether in applications. 

“This supposed recognition that universities can, in some situations, consider race in application essays is nothing but an attempt to put lipstick on a pig,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor ’76 wrote in her dissent. 


Roberts’ opinion was grounded in a theory called “colorblind constitutionalism,” which holds that the Constitution does not allow any distinctions based on skin color or race — even if those distinctions are intended to remedy past discrimination. 

Roberts used this same doctrine in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle (2007) to prevent a school district from assigning students to schools based on their race, famously writing, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” 

Many progressives argue that colorblind constitutionalism cuts against the history and purpose of the Constitution’s Reconstruction Amendments, namely the three additions to the Constitution that abolished slavery, ensured equal protection, and granted equal suffrage to African Americans after the Civil War. 

“Our country has never been colorblind,” wrote Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson in her dissent. “Simultaneously with the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, Congress enacted a number of race-conscious laws to fulfill the Amendment’s promise of equality,” added Sotomayor, “leaving no doubt that the Equal Protection Clause permits consideration of race to achieve its goal.”

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Are all universities banned from considering race?

In a footnote to the majority opinion, the Court clarified that military academies such as West Point and the United States Naval Academy are exempt from the ban on affirmative action. 

“No military academy is party to these cases,” Roberts wrote, noting that the lower courts had not addressed the issue with specific regard to these institutions. 

The Supreme Court often defers to military leaders on matters of national security, reasoning that those leaders have access to privileged information that judges do not. As such, Roberts seemed to accept that racial diversity is essential for troop unity and cohesion — an argument that was advanced by top former military leaders in a friend-of-the-court brief last summer.  

How will the general public be reacting to this? 

According to one survey by Pew Research, a majority of Americans do not support affirmative action, though these opinions are largely divided along racial lines. A significant majority of white Americans opposed affirmative action, while Black Americans were more likely to approve of the program. 

However, in an Associated Press News survey, a majority of Americans said that the Supreme Court should not ban the consideration of race in college admissions. 

Opinions are more favorable at Princeton. According to the Frosh 2026 survey, close to half of Princeton first-year respondents last year had favorable opinions of affirmative action, while slightly more than a fifth had unfavorable opinions. The remainder was split between neutral opinions (about 19.3 percent) and not enough information. 

Give me some background context. What spurred this decision? 

Two parallel cases culminated in this decision. In one, Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), a group created by conservative activist Edward Blum, argued that Harvard University discriminated against Asian American applicants in its admissions process. In the other, the same organization argued that the University of North Carolina was discriminating against both white and Asian applicants.

Blum previously backed another case against affirmative action at the University of Texas and a case challenging parts of the Voting Rights Act. He has filed more than twenty lawsuits in these two areas. 

What’s the argument against affirmative action?

SFFA argues that Asian American applicants are being discriminated against. 

In their original lawsuit against Harvard, they argue that “Harvard is engaging in racial balancing.” They note that the demographics of admitted students have remained largely the same from year to year, even though “application rates and qualifications for each racial group have undergone significant changes over time.” 

SFFA argues that this amounts to a quota system. 

They further argue that Harvard is “failing to use race as merely a ‘plus factor’ in admissions,” but instead that it is a dominant factor in each application. SFFA argues that Asian Americans have a notably low acceptance rate at Harvard despite their academic achievements.

They also believe that “race-neutral alternatives can achieve the benefits of diversity.” For example, they argue that considering socioeconomic diversity or ending legacy advantages would serve to create the same diversity. 

In 2018, as part of the original lawsuit, Harvard handed over thousands of admissions records. These showed that the University was using a “personal score” to measure kindness, likeability, and other positive subjective traits. Harvard consistently ranked Asian American applicants lower on these measures than white applicants.  

What has been Princeton’s defense?

In an essay for Princeton Alumni Weekly, University President Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83 argued against the oversimplification of “merit.” He noted that Princeton has about 18,000 fully qualified candidates who apply every year — nine times the number that it can admit. He argued that all students who are admitted had passed a rigorous academic bar. 

“This myth of merit-based ranking infects and distorts discussions about affirmative action, including in the cases now pending at the Supreme Court,” he said at the time. 

“Race and ethnicity are among the many factors that help us to understand the challenges that applicants have overcome and the perspectives that they can add to our campus," he explained. “Those are components of merit, ones that matter to this University’s mission along with the other excellences of comparably qualified applicants.”

He argued that given the number of qualified applicants, it would be impossible to pick the “most deserving.” Those admitted students were qualified, but also simply lucky, he argued. 

“We seek students who have the exceptional academic ability necessary to benefit fully from a Princeton education, who will contribute to the education of their peers while they are here, and who will use their education to make a difference for the better in the world,” he said.

Tell me about Princeton’s history with affirmative action.

Princeton has considered race in admissions since 1963

The University has repeatedly affirmed its commitment to affirmative action in light of the many challenges it has faced since then, including after California and Michigan outlawed affirmative action in 1996 and 2006, respectively. 

The University’s affirmative action policy was legally contested in 2006 as well, after an Asian American applicant who was rejected filed a complaint to the Department of Education (DOE), alleging bias.

The complaint initiated a seven-year-long investigation which ultimately cleared the University of wrongdoing. However, seven months after the investigation, SFFA filed a Freedom of Information Act request demanding that the DOE release documents related to the investigation. Princeton filed a lawsuit in response, claiming the documents contained confidential personal applicant information. Princeton won the legal dispute. 

In the two cases decided today, Princeton, along with 13 other colleges, filed an amicus brief in support of Harvard and UNC.

How will this affect future Princeton classes? 

The decision is likely to have a significant impact on the racial makeup of Princeton’s incoming classes.

Experts hired by both Harvard and SFFA found that without affirmative action, enrollment of Asian students would jump from about 24 percent to about 27 percent of the student body while that of white students would increase from 40 percent to 48 percent. The percentage of Hispanic students would decrease by almost a third, and the percentage of Black students by more than half.

Over the past 40 years at Princeton, the percentage of Black and Hispanic students has remained almost the same, ranging from 5 to 8 percent for both groups, a factor that anti-affirmative action activists often cite, noting that the country has changed dramatically within that time. The percentage of Asians within Princeton classes has steadily increased, while the percentage of white students has decreased.

What might the University do next? 

In an interview with the ‘Prince’ last fall, Eisgruber stated that “we will do our best to be creative within the limits of the law. But it won’t be easy.” 

He added that “we’re always looking for ways other than affirmative action and other than the use of race in admission to achieve diversity.” 

He noted that in faculty hiring, the University was already unable to use race as a factor. 

“We have to work on things like expanding the scope of the pools we use for hiring,” he said. “We’ve been able to make progress by doing that and looking for other ways to take down barriers.” 

With today’s decision, legacy admissions is already facing renewed scrutiny. 

“If SCOTUS was serious about their ludicrous ‘colorblindness’ claims, they would have abolished legacy admissions, aka affirmative action for the privileged,” U.S. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted earlier today. 

The 2019 SFFA model referenced in the lawsuit had found that the racial diversity brought by affirmative action would be difficult to obtain without it if legacy admissions were continued. 

But Princeton’s policy approach remains to be seen. In a statement today, Eisgruber said that the decision, while unwelcome, was not unexpected and that Princeton was prepared. 

“Princeton has been preparing for this possibility with assistance and advice from legal counsel,” he said. “While today’s decision will make our work more difficult, we will work vigorously to preserve — and, indeed, grow — the diversity of our community while fully respecting the law as announced today.”

Anna Salvatore is a senior News contributor for the ‘Prince.’ 

Laura Robertson is a senior News writer for the ‘Prince.’

Charlie Roth is a head Data editor and senior News writer for the ‘Prince.’

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