The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that race cannot be a factor in college admissions, overturning a precedent last set in Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003.
The court ruled in a 6-3 decision, with the three liberal justices being in the minority.
Affirmative action policies were put in place by a number of universities to boost admissions among historically underserved and discriminated groups. Several states had since banned the practice, but it remained widely used at some of the nation's top academic institutions.
A separate question before the court was whether Harvard and the University of North Carolina violated Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by discriminating against Asian American applicants.
Students for Fair Admissions filed a pair of cases claiming that affirmative action admissions are "unfair, unnecessary, and unconstitutional." The organization brought a suit against Harvard on behalf of an Asian American student who was denied admission into the college. The organization filed a similar lawsuit against the University of North Carolina. Those suits were combined when going before the Supreme Court.
Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson ruled on the case against the University of North Carolina but abstained from considering the case against Harvard because of her affiliation with the university.
The Supreme Court said college affirmative action policies violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
The clause states, "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."
"Many universities have for too long wrongly concluded that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned, but the color of their skin. This Nation’s constitutional history does not tolerate that choice," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion released Thursday.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor authored the dissent.
"This limited use of race has helped equalize educational opportunities for all students of every race and background and has improved racial diversity on college campuses. Although progress has been slow and imperfect, race-conscious college admissions policies have advanced the Constitution’s guarantee of equality and have promoted Brown’s vision of a Nation with more inclusive schools."
She added the ruling "rolls back decades of precedent and momentous progress."
Students for Fair Admissions said that the applicant to Harvard was No. 1 in his high school class of 480 graduates, an AP Scholar with distinction and a National Scholar.
"Applicant was denied the opportunity to compete for admission to Harvard on equal footing with other applicants on the basis of race or ethnicity due to Harvard’s discriminatory admissions policies," Students for Fair Admissions said.
Harvard has pushed back, saying race is among "many" factors it uses to admit students. According to Harvard data, if it were to stop using race as a basis for admissions, African American admissions would drop from 14% to 6%, Latino admissions would drop from 14% to 9%, Asian American admissions would rise from 24% to 27%, and White admissions would rise from 40% to 48%.
Harvard said it had no race information on 8% of those admitted.
"The Supreme Court has twice cited Harvard’s admission process as a model for how other colleges and universities can consider race consistent with the law and the Constitution. Harvard’s qualified, limited use of race is entirely consistent with more than four decades of Supreme Court precedent," Harvard said.
The University of North Carolina cited a past court ruling in defending its methods.
"Race is one of more than 40 criteria considered in every application, and the evaluation process is flexible enough to consider all of the pertinent elements of diversity that may be present for any particular applicant. Finally, UNC’s policies are clear that race may never be used as the defining feature of a candidate’s evaluation," the 2021 ruling read.