This month, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments regarding the preservation of affirmative action programs on college and university campuses in the United States. The two lawsuits facing the Supreme Court—Students for Fair Admissions v. President & Fellows of Harvard College and Students for Fair Admission v. University of North Carolina—would determine if race will legally play a role in college admissions.
The Jed Foundation (JED) endorses affirmative action as an initiative that successfully creates more equitable admissions for higher education institutions in the United States.
As part of its mission to protect youth mental health and prevent suicide, JED establishes robust support networks on college and university campuses. This includes ensuring that students of color do not feel isolated, tokenized, or underrepresented on their own campus.
Similarly, affirmative action provides a way to make college admissions, particularly those at elite universities, more equitable and accessible. This leads to a more inclusive atmosphere, better informed staff and programs of support, and a student body that more accurately represents the diversity of one’s peer group across the U.S.
Affirmative Action: Definition, History, and Why It Matters
Affirmative action refers to programs that consider race and other aspects of identity when distributing resources or opportunities. It was introduced as a way to address racial discrimination in the college admissions process and reduce structural barriers to higher education. It also applies to employers and the federal government. Though the current cases before the court are specifically addressing the role of race in college admissions, it is possible that ruling against affirmative action in schools would ripple into other sectors.
When first introduced under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, affirmative action focused specifically on improving opportunities for Black students, who continue to contend with discrimination in many aspects of higher education, including standardized testing, tuition costs, and hostility from instructors and peers. Students of color also make up a much lower percentage of student bodies at the “Top 100” universities than they do the overall population nationwide, highlighting the barrier of access.
Today, critics of affirmative action argue that it discriminates against white and Asian applicants. (Others have pointed out that this grouping perpetuates the harmful “model minority” stereotype associated with Asian Americans.) However, the goal of affirmative action is to benefit all students: A more diverse campus creates a richer, more well-informed student body.
Affirmative action gives students with unequal access to opportunities a more level playing field. Without it, students of color will once again face a higher barrier of entry to colleges and universities. This is not only a barrier against higher education, but also precludes access to mental health care and other campus resources. Careers that require a college degree will subsequently fail to diversify. This is detrimental to the workforce, because diversity in the workplace fosters innovation and improves overall employee performance.
Moreover, race-centric power dynamics flourish in predominantly white spaces, where students of color are not given a chance to share their voices and experiences. This further perpetuates systemic racism and allows it to embed even deeper within society. Diversifying campuses makes students more likely to interact with peers of other races, which has been shown to boost civic engagement, intellectual performance, and leadership skills.
The Supreme Court Decision and What Comes Next
The Supreme Court is expected to issue its final ruling on these two cases in June 2023. Proponents of affirmative action are alarmed that this decision might reverse decades of progress, with broad social and systemic consequences. JED will continue to endorse the importance of affirmative action when it comes to creating a more equitable society—starting with safe, supported, inclusive campuses.
For more information on how to support students of color ahead of this ruling, browse and share these resources from JED: