The U.S. Supreme Court last week upheld Michigan's voter-backed ban of race-based admissions decisions for public universities. Now what?
Proposal 2, which amended Michigan’s constitution by banning affirmative action for state school admissions, was approved by voters in 2006. Other states have similar bans, and about one quarter of the U.S. population lives in those states.
In addition to Michigan, those states include California, Florida, Washington, Nebraska, Arizona, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Washington.
Looking into the crystal ball, here are five possible scenarios that could play out in the wake of the Supreme Court decision on Michigan.
1. More states seek voter-backed initiatives
The Supreme Court’s decision could encourage other states to follow Michigan’s lead. How that might affect the minority enrollment numbers for their state schools is difficult to predict.
In 2012, a report by the nonpartisan Century Foundation studied the effects of race-based admissions policies and alternative strategies for boosting student diversity, including basing admissions on student socio-economic factors.
According to the report, "A Better Affirmative Action: State Universities that Created Alternatives to Racial Preferences," the percentage of black and Hispanic freshman students initially fell for Texas flagship public universities after a federal court ruled in 1996 that the state could not use race-based admissions policies. California, Michigan, and Florida’s flagship public universities also had a drop after those states banned race-based admissions. In Georgia and Nevada, the freshman enrollment percentages actually increased after those states dropped race considerations in admissions. In Arizona and New Hampshire, the effect wasn’t clear.
The report concluded that the enrollment percentages for blacks and Hispanics for almost all of the state universities studied — except for the University of Michigan, the University of California—Berkley, and UCLA — rose higher than they were before the race-based bans. The increases were attributed to alternative admissions and financial aid strategies.
2. States attempting to reverse such decisions will have a harder time
The precedent set by the Supreme Court's decision will make ban reversals harder. California is one example, as lawmakers there shelved a proposed constitutional amendment last month that would allow state public universities to base admissions on race again, reversing the ballot measure approved by voters in 1996. For the incoming freshman class of California residents for the state university system in the fall, 4.2% are black and 28.8% are Hispanic. That’s significantly lower than the population percentages for the two minority groups in California: Blacks make up 6% of the 15- to 19-year-olds in the state; Hispanics are 49.4%.
3. Socioeconomic factors become the alternative
The use of socioeconomic standing instead of race could become more widespread for schools looking to diversify their student bodies. The aforementioned Century Foundation report details several strategies that colleges have successfully employed as alternatives to race-based strategies in states like Texas. Factors considered can include whether applicants come from single-parent homes, the language spoken at home, the family responsibilities of the applicant, the socio-economic status of the secondary school attended, and the student’s college admission test scores relative to the average test scores of the applicant’s high school.
4. Lawsuits over race-based admissions could gain momentum
Lawsuits, or proposed lawsuits, against individual universities for their race-based admissions policies may gain traction as a result of the decision. Earlier this month, the Project on Fair Representation, backed by anti-affirmative-action crusader Edward Blum, started recruiting potential plaintiffs for lawsuits against three universities based on their use of race in admissions. The lawsuit targets Harvard University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Blum was behind Fisher v. University of Texas, where the Supreme Court ruled that universities must show that “available, workable race-neutral alternatives do not suffice” before they can consider race in admissions decisions.
5. Most schools won't feel any effect at all
The Michigan ruling, and state policy decisions in the wake of the ruling, may not have much of an impact for many public colleges. That’s because, as the Washington Post points out, of the 700 or so public four-year colleges and universities in the U.S., many of them accept all or nearly all applicants. So affirmative action at those schools is not much of an issue. In 2012, only 411 state colleges and universities accepted 80% or fewer of their applicants. From that group, only 103 accepted half or fewer.