Current applicants may be last admitted to Kansas universities with race-based advantages

March 3, 2023 3:33 am
U.S. Supreme Court members

Members of the U.S. Supreme Court pose for a photo Sept. 30, 2022, in the justices’ conference room. From left: Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, Sonia Sotomayor, Clarence Thomas, John Roberts, Ketanji Brown Jackson, Samuel Alito, Elena Kagan and Brett Kavanaugh. (Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States)

For students graduating from Kansas high schools this year, the timing of the Supreme Court’s ongoing affirmative action case has been poignant.

The case, which could do more than just eliminate race-based admissions to universities, will straddle landmark dates that the high school class of 2023 has marked on their calendars. First, the case was argued on Oct. 31, 2022, the eve of the early application deadline to selective universities like Harvard, whose practices are in question.

As for the decision, it is likely to come in June, when almost all college-bound Kansas students will have chosen their next school and tossed their cap into the Midwestern air at high school graduation. The court case has hung over this admissions season like a cloud that might bring a change — but not until next year.

The basics of this Supreme Court case are familiar to most Americans because racial issues have infiltrated how we talk about college admissions, especially in regard to selective schools. Each year students reach with ambition toward schools that might not accept them. Those prestigious schools include the schools involved in this case: Harvard and the University of North Carolina.

Students apply and then watch their email inboxes wondering if they will “get in.”

When white Americans talk about which students got into which elite school, race looms in the background, if not the foreground. Talking admissions with fellow white parents is to acknowledge or eye roll — or even sneer — at race-based admissions.

“Of course, she got into that school because she’s Black.”

Or, “He received a great scholarship, and we all know why that is.”

An individual student might find that their race aids their admission. After all, that is the explicit purpose of affirmative action.

The magnitude of this advantage hinges not just on whether their target school practices affirmative action but also the student’s race. For decades, this practice of affirmative action has been protected by the Supreme Court, questioned by conservatives and influenced other practices in higher education.

For universities in Kansas to completely ignore race in their admissions would be a substantial shift.

Advocates for rescinding affirmative action imagine a color-blind admissions process in which white students will return to equal footing with students of color. In this, they will imagine victory.

In my classroom, I worry about a loss of diversity. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas struggled to define diversity, let alone appreciate it. For me, a less racially diverse classroom means a less vibrant and less informed classroom.

Here’s an example. In my journalism classes, we create journalistic products with specific audiences in mind. These projects challenge students to figure out how we can serve a particular audience as defined by its demographics. While students can and should research those audiences to better understand them, they learn so much by sharing that task with fellow students from diverse racial backgrounds.

There’s another advantage that I see in my classroom. As proven by research at Harvard (three mentions in one column!), cognitive difference helps teams solve problems. Cultural differences are also valuable within teams like these, especially in the classroom.

However, the political makeup of the Supreme Court may shepherd in an even more expansive change to higher education. Because the conservative justices are so dominant in number and so allied with the idea of rescinding affirmative action, more programs may be in jeopardy.

In a January story, New York Times reporter Stephanie Saul wrote, “Many education experts say that such a decision could not only lead to changes in who is admitted, but also jeopardize long-established strategies that colleges have used to build diverse classes, including programs that are intended to reach specific racial and ethnic groups for scholarships, honors programs and recruitment.”

For that reason, while few colleges in Kansas fit into the “selective universities” bucket that would be most dramatically affected in admissions decisions, the outcome of this verdict could be wider.

Consider the University of Kansas, where I help to administer a few programs that encourage students of color. As a member of the scholarship committee at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications, I help to award funds to students — both prospective and returning. Some of these scholarships are privately funded with descriptions like, “The donor expresses a preference for the selection of African American students.”

It seems an unlikely overreach that the Supreme Court will prohibit private scholarships like this, because these are scholarship funds and not admissions decisions. Even more, the scholarships are not funded by federal aid.

However, the court has surprised us recently by abandoning incremental change. (See the overturning of Roe v. Wade.) With that in mind, when I was considering the students who were eligible for race-conscious scholarships this year, I made my recommendations with a bit more dramatic consideration.

Would this be the last time we could award these scholarships in this way? Perhaps next year, that scholarship for Black students will not exist.

Other programs at Kansas universities are closer to the intent of the lawsuit. They are in more imminent jeopardy. For instance, my school at KU also offers a Multicultural Scholars Program, which along with scholarships, “helps students with the academic, social and personal transition to a university setting.”

In the same respect, I wonder, could the multicultural scholarship for the summer journalism camp that I direct be in jeopardy after this year?

If we are nervous that diversity programs and scholarships might be eliminated, we should be almost certain that race-based admissions will disappear once the Supreme Court rules. With that change, our college classrooms will undoubtedly change.

For the final decision, the high school class of 2024 and many years after must wait on the Supreme Court’s upcoming ruling.

Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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Eric Thomas
Eric Thomas

Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, a nonprofit that supports student journalism throughout the state. He also teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He lives in Leawood with his wife and two children.