FAQ on Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard and Students for Fair Admissions v. UNC

The American Federation of Teachers is committed to diversity and equity in higher education. We are standing strong in combating the most recent right-wing campaign to reverse decades of progress toward racial equity in access to higher education and prohibit educators from teaching the truth about our country’s history of racial injustice. We know that having a student body and higher education workforce that reflects the vast range of experiences in our communities has been instrumental in raising student outcomes, improving the quality of teaching and research, and providing the evidence-based research that is vital to creating the shared understandings that are the foundation for democratic participation and informed public policy responses to the many challenges we face. Those driving the current reactionary landscape are not only dismantling the legal regime that has contributed to increased diversity in our higher education system, but also actively creating new barriers that undermine our colleges and universities’ missions and erode higher education’s ability to contribute to our collective well-being. 

As part of this broader right-wing effort, in June 2023, the Republican-appointed majority of the Supreme Court overturned more than 40 years of precedent and struck down the race-conscious admissions programs of Harvard University and the University of North Carolina in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard and its companion case Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina. As we already know from the experiences of California and Michigan in banning race-conscious admissions at their public universities, this decision will almost certainly result in reduced enrollment of Black, Latinx and Indigenous students, particularly at the country’s most highly selective institutions. Colleges and universities must now aggressively pursue other lawful strategies to provide fairer access to higher education and promote the success of all students. 
We will continue our work to ensure that diversity and equity are core values within higher education, and we believe that there are still tools colleges and universities can use to put these values into practice. Here we have compiled answers to some questions you may have about the effects of the SFFA v. Harvard and SFFA v. UNC decision and some additional helpful resources.

What did the Supreme Court decide?

In striking down the admissions processes of Harvard and UNC, the Supreme Court held in SFFA that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits colleges and universities that receive any federal financial assistance (that is, the vast majority) from considering applicants’ race in making admissions decisions, and that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment similarly prohibits public colleges and universities from considering applicants’ race in admissions. Under previous Supreme Court precedent, colleges and universities could consider race in limited ways in order to further their “compelling interest” in the educational benefits of a diverse student body.

How will this decision affect university admissions decision processes?

Institutions of higher education that directly consider applicants’ race as a factor in making admissions decisions must revise their admissions processes to comply with the law, which will make it more challenging for selective colleges to ensure racial equity in their admissions. However, even though admissions processes may not consider applicants’ race as a factor in and of itself, institutions of higher education can and should deploy other lawful strategies to promote equitable access to education and achieve a diverse student body. 
The Department of Education and the Department of Justice jointly released a question-and-answer document, linked below, that outlines some of these lawful strategies. For instance, colleges and universities may still consider as part of a holistic application review other factors that shape an applicant’s lived experience and may contribute to more equitable access to education and diversity on campus such as: financial means and broader socioeconomic status; whether the applicant lives in a city, suburb or rural area; information about the applicant’s neighborhood and high school; whether the applicant is a citizen or member of a tribal nation; experiences of adversity, including discrimination; parental education level; and ability to speak more than one language.

How does this decision affect admissions recruiting efforts?

Targeted outreach and recruiting efforts are an important strategy to ensure that institutions of higher education have a diverse applicant pool to select from. The Supreme Court’s decision in SFFA does not require colleges and universities to ignore race when identifying prospective students for outreach programs as long as all students, regardless of race, have the same opportunity to compete for admission. That is, a college may consider race when engaging in outreach efforts, but it may not grant those targeted for outreach an advantage in the admissions process.

How does this decision affect campus diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives?

After the Supreme Court’s decision in SFFA, colleges and universities may continue to foster a sense of belonging and provide support to underrepresented groups on campus through various lawful means, such as maintaining an office of diversity and campus cultural centers, providing resources and support services, offering clubs and affinity groups, and hosting assemblies and listening sessions on race-related topics, as long as these services and resources are available to all students regardless of race. Note, however, that due to the ongoing Republican-led campaign to attack DEI programs, state legislation may legally restrict schools’ ability to engage in DEI efforts.

How does this decision affect university hiring practices?

The Supreme Court’s decision in SFFA does not directly affect university hiring practices. Directly considering an applicant’s race as a factor in decision-making, as was at issue in SFFA, was already generally prohibited in the employment context. After SFFA was decided, the chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a statement, linked below, clarifying that the decision does not prohibit employers from implementing DEI programs that seek to ensure equal opportunity in the workplace.

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