The Supreme Court College Admissions Decisions Should not Influence Applicants — Yet

Josh Stephens
8 min readAug 21, 2023

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I’m sure many of you have followed the pair of lawsuits that challenged colleges’ affirmative action policies. One focused on the University of North Carolina, and the other on Harvard.

Both cases, which were decided in June, essentially claimed that the two schools favored applicants from certain racial backgrounds and, in doing so, decreased the number of spots for applicants who deserved admission on “merit.” They became federal cases because the two schools — like most major colleges and universities — receive federal funding and, therefore, must abide by federal nondiscrimination laws, and, specifically, the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection.

Both universities lost their cases, with the court’s liberal judges in the minority both times. Because Supreme Court cases set precedent, the ruling applies to all colleges that take federal funds. The ruling does not prescribe what colleges must do henceforth. But, it does mean that colleges that explicitly consider race as a factor in admissions decisions are in violation of the law and subject to lawsuits.

I am not a legal scholar or on an admissions staff, and I do not want to overstep my bounds. Based on my experience in admissions, I’d like to offer a few brief observations. Even if you are not concerned about affirmative action or haven’t followed the discussion, I still encourage you to read these insights. The more you know about the college process, the stronger your applications will be.

Too. Much. Harvard.
In this case, as in so many other discussions of college, Harvard occupies a disproportionate and, indeed, toxic level of prominence. “Harvard” is often a proxy for “selective colleges.” It’s an example of American culture’s tendency to heap attention attention on superstars at the expense of other worthy people, institutions, and ideas.

Yes, Harvard is fine for the people who are lucky enough to study or teach there. But, at the societal scale, it’s distracting. The vast majority of people will never have any contact with it, and do not need any contact with it. Hundreds of millions of Americans lead happy, productive lives without a Harvard degree. But, higher education as a whole would be better off if it did not exist.

In this particular case, the idea that the plaintiffs were “harmed” by Harvard’s policy is ludicrous. Harvard is one out of thousands of universities. If the plaintiffs are saying that their life success depends on — and only on — a Harvard education and that Harvard somehow “owes” them that opportunity, that’s their problem, not Harvard’s.

“Merit”
Notwithstanding the legalities of the case, I think the plaintiffs’ premise was misguided. They argued, in part, that affirmative action pushes out “meritorious” applicants. But, how do we define “merit”? Hint: it’s impossible.

Selective colleges have never claimed that their admissions decisions are not at least partially subjective. They always emphasize that admissions are “holistic” (if you’ve attended info sessions or tours, I guarantee you’ve heard that word billions of times). They consider multiple types of insights into applicants, partly because they want to get a full picture of applicants and partly because they know that no single metric — be it GPA, test scores, or any other measure — can convey “merit” (and, with the rise of test-optional policies, one of those metrics is diminishing). To assume that a certain type of applicant has “merit” and that affirmative action does not give these “meritorious” applicants the results they “deserve” is absurd.

For individual applicants, nothing should change
It’s possible that, in the aggregate, the court decisions may influence admissions processes and the demographic makeup of their admitted students. But, the aggregate does not necessarily have anything to do with the individual. Applicants should not worry about things they cannot control, and we should not speculate about things we do not know.

We cannot control the Supreme Court. We cannot control colleges’ admission policies. We cannot control individual admission readers’ preferences and foibles. We cannot control any of those things — and we never have been able to. Applicants can control what they present to colleges, based on what they consider their most impressive, interesting, important life experiences. That’s been the case since the advent of selective admissions, and it will continue to be the case.

Colleges want diversity
The court decision will constrain admissions offices, and it will compel some of them to implement new methods of evaluating applicants. Collectively, colleges might admit fewer applicants from underrepresented minority backgrounds. And yet, most colleges want diversity. Many of them have already reaffirmed their commitments to diversity, representation, socioeconomic mobility, and related issues.

These colleges will, presumably, continue to pursue diverse applicant pools and try to admit diverse classes (through, for instance, more outreach to underrepresented communities). Admission offices will surely work hard to accomplish these goals within the stipulations of the court ruling. And, of course, students who identify with underrepresented groups should continue to strive for and apply to whatever selective colleges they want to.

Potential, not reward
The plaintiffs implied that acceptance to a school like Harvard is a reward for achievement. I reject this idea, and I think colleges do too.

Yes, colleges care about what an applicant has accomplished in the past. But, colleges are not in the business of “rewarding” random high school kids. Colleges care about what an applicant will accomplish, how an applicant will behave in a community, and what an applicant’s potential looks like. For them, an applicant’s past is largely a proxy for the future.

Colleges are not simply asking, “how good is this student?” They are also asking — especially once they’ve pared down their applicant pools — “how will this student grow if he attends our college? How will this student contribute to society if she attends our college? How will our college change this student’s life?”

A college might reasonably conclude that an applicant with less impressive past accomplishments nonetheless has incredible future potential and will reach that potential if given access to that college’s resources. Conversely, a college might reject an applicant with impressive accomplishments knowing that the applicant will be fine wherever he, she, or they goes.

No system is perfect, and no system is “fair”
As I discuss in this blog, the American admissions system is flawed. Whatever wisdom the court’s decision may or may not hold, it will not change those flaws. Applicants — of all backgrounds — have to accept the flaws. They have to accept generally that life is not fair and that life is not always going to give them what they want. Anyone who is ambitious and wants a good education has to work hard, seize opportunities, and face competition no matter where they go to college.

Iniquities run deep
Whether the ruling increases, decreases, or does nothing to enrollment of underrepresented students, one axiom remains unchanged: inequities in American (and global) society run deep. They are lamentable and, indeed, tragic. No college-related policy, no matter how enlightened, will change that. The creation of a more equitable society goes way beyond college admissions.

Challenges to legacy admissions are looming
The shoe is now on the other foot. A group has just filed a suit (against Harvard) to protest legacy admissions. The claim is that favoritism toward children of alumni disproportionately admits wealthier white applicants and, therefore, reduces potential spots for underrepresented minority applicants. Several colleges have already announced the discontinuation of legacy admissions. I expect that we’ll see waves of competing lawsuits in the coming years that will complicate and muddle this issue further.

Applicants’ experience of race
In his opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life.” While colleges cannot consider an applicant’s race per se, Roberts invites them — and this is a subtle point — to consider how applicants discuss their experience of race. In other words, a compelling story or insightful ideas about race could increase an applicant’s chances if a college chooses to consider it.

Many colleges have already released new supplemental prompts that, though they don’t say so explicitly, presumably comport with the court decision.

Critics say that this approach puts an undue burden on applicants to reveal certain stories (some of which might be discomfiting). That’s a fair point. On the other hand, applicants (of all backgrounds) frequently write essays about their backgrounds and social contexts. Many of those essays are heartfelt, compelling, and effective. So, for many students, it’s not really an “extra” burden. Moreover, for schools that have mandatory supplements, all applicants will be writing these essays.

And, let’s face it: the college application process is a “burden” as it is. We can debate whether the current application system is worthwhile (as I have done here), but colleges have always expected students to put effort into their applications and be forthcoming about all sorts of aspects of their lives.

Your relationship with diversity
No matter what ethnic or national background an applicant identifies with, everyone can share their relationship with and feelings about diversity. Except for people who have grown up in unusually homogenous places — which may be worthy of commentary in and of itself — we have all encountered people from different backgrounds. Those people may be classmates, friends, work colleagues, competitive opponents, and so forth.

As well, we are all surely aware of social, political, and economic issues that relate to diversity. Diversity can fuel discussions, lead to realizations, and, yes, cause conflict — all of which can be educational. Everyone, therefore, can discuss how they have thought about diversity, how they have related to diverse people, and how they have learned from diversity.

Everyone should hold their own convictions about diversity, equity, and socioeconomic mobility
I think everyone can agree that these are big, complex issues. They go way beyond education and college admissions. Reasonable people can have different feelings about them and believe in different solutions. I encourage all college applicants to pay attention to these issues, share thoughts about them — especially with people of different backgrounds — draw their own conclusions, refine and change those conclusions, and do their best to contribute to solutions, in college and beyond.

Other commentary from mainstream and trade media:

Excerpts from the decision

How Would Harvard Talk About My Kids?

How the Supreme Court Ruling Will Change Admissions

For Most College Students, Affirmative Action Was Never Enough

With Supreme Court Decision, College Admissions Could Become More Subjective

Activists spurred by affirmative action ruling sue Harvard over legacy admissions

Georgia Tech Admissions Blog: Let’s Get A Few Things Straight (about College Admission)

Chronicle of Higher Education: What to Know About Race-Conscious Admissions

Image courtesy of WEBN-TV, via Flickr.

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Josh Stephens

Josh Stephens is a veteran teacher and college counselor based in Los Angeles. Josh can be reached at josh@joshrstephens.net.