It is anticipated that when the U.S. Supreme Court issues its ruling this summer in a case concerning race-conscious admissions programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina, the decision will likely place significant barriers to considering race or ethnicity in student admissions nationwide. The Court may even go so far as to rule that any race-conscious targeted outreach and student support programs are unconstitutional.

If the Court determines that race-conscious admissions programs are unlawful, such a decision would mean that colleges and universities would have to end their decades-long practice of race-conscious admissions, leaving them scrambling for other methods to achieve racial diversity on campus. One very likely result would be reduced enrollment of promising Black and Latine students at some of the nation’s selective institutions, narrowing these students’ higher education options and undermining the development of a diverse leadership class in America.

The Challenge Schools Seeking Diversity Will Face

Removing race-conscious admission practices will present a significant challenge for schools seeking to have a diverse campus. Many admissions criteria that selective colleges and universities use, particularly test scores, are highly correlated with race and income, which if used alone, would admit a disproportionate amount of students from white, wealthy families, severely hampering diversity at these schools. Leaders at selective institutions are well aware of this problem, but they feel they cannot change their use of these admissions criteria because doing so would cause their rankings to drop, hurting the prestige that is critically important to their selectivity, fundraising, and recruitment and retention of top faculty. Race-conscious admissions practices allow institutions to correct for the inherent biases of these highly selective criteria without harming school prestige.

Without the ability to use race-conscious tools, colleges and universities will have to find other ways to correct for systemic racial biases in admissions and ensure diversity in enrollment. But past efforts to do this have not been promising. Two state university systems—in California and in Michigan—have tried to achieve diversity through other means after they were forced to drop race-conscious admissions practices, but both systems say their efforts have failed. With a decision by the Court imminent—and no idea yet of how soon the Court will require action—it is imperative that institutions redouble their efforts to develop new admissions policies and practices to ensure diverse classes and develop the next generation of critical thinkers and leaders.

How can schools correct for systemic racial biases without using race-conscious methods? Some researchers have identified various models and methods that would look at existing data in ways that could help identify the intergenerational factors that disadvantage students of color, which then could permissibly be used in recruiting and admissions by colleges. Colleges and universities could collect and use data on nonracial factors such as socioeconomic status, first-generation college status, precise geographic location, and so on, that make the playing field unequal and that often correlate with race. When looking at household net worth, for example, the median white family in America has a net worth that is nearly ten times greater than that for the median Black family, pointing to greater income disparities. Therefore, using wealth data in outreach and admissions could go far in counteracting a ban on race-based affirmative action. However, currently, granular information on household wealth is generally not available to colleges. So, while the work of achieving diversity through non-race-conscious means has already begun, a robust system for identifying and correcting for disadvantages in admissions to achieve campus diversity has not yet materialized.

In the event the Supreme Court strikes down race-conscious affirmative action, higher education advocates will need to rally and offer strategies for colleges to advance diversity and outline what governments (federal and state) can do to empower colleges for this purpose. Unfortunately, in addition to the challenge to affirmative action taking place in the court system, we are also seeing a flurry of anti-diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) bills moving through state legislatures across the country. While some may think these are two isolated incidences, they are not. They are the one-two punch that conservatives are using to set us back and undo the progress of a diverse and inclusive democracy.

The Challenge Students of Color—and the Schools They Attend—Will Face

History shows that, absent race-conscious admissions, students of color are more likely to be shut out of selective schools. Over the past few years, there already has been a decline in Black and Latine student enrollment at selective public institutions across the nation—a prohibition on the use of affirmative action will only accelerate that trend. Without access to these colleges and universities, where will promising students of color go? And, importantly, once they get there, what resources will be at their disposal?

One likely place these students will turn to is the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Now, it has always been the case that many highly talented students of color select HBCUs as their first choice—but these students are often lured away by financial aid offers from better-resourced schools seeking to diversify their campuses. The end of race-concious admissions practices will disrupt this dynamic, with the result being that more talented students accepted into HBCUs will wind up attending them.

But history also shows how poorly federal and state governments have responded when it comes to supporting Black and brown students at these schools. For example, when the GI Bill was enacted after World War II to expand access to higher education for veterans, it led to increased enrollment at colleges and universities across the nation. However, in the South, where racial segregation was still practiced in higher education, Black veterans’ choices were restricted mostly to HBCUs, which have always been very poorly resourced. Inequitable funding at the time led trustees and other leadership at these schools to demand increased funding and improved infrastructure from their state legislatures, but these calls were rebuffed, resulting in HBCU campuses getting little to no support while predominantly white campuses across the country saw their resources bolstered. As a result, while the GI Bill spurred Black college attendance, it had the perverse effect of exacerbating education and economic differences between Black and white Americans, not reducing them.

In a 2021 article for the Atlantic, “This Is the End of Affirmative Action,” Adam Harris wrote extensively about the American higher education system’s not-so-well-hidden secret: it has never given Black students and other students of color an equal chance to succeed. Black students are just as capable of academic achievement as white students, but the country’s structural racism denies that notion and instead supports a highly stratified system. Furthermore, the economic need of many of these students, as demonstrated for example through their Pell Grant eligibility, is not an indicator of limits on their academic potential, but rather simply of limits on their resources. Sadly, however, if affirmative action is overturned, the higher education system will further bifurcate, with wealthy colleges and universities accepting fewer historically marginalized students, and underfunded institutions that have historically admitted Black and brown students—HBCUs—seeing an increased influx of students, but not of resources.

All this being said, with the possibility of race-conscious admissions being banned, significant funding will be needed to support the institutions where those students will attend to avoid deepening already vast inequities. HBCUs are already seeing their enrollments rise because students value these institutions’ commitment to academic excellence and culture of caring. However, these institutions will need more partners and resources to make greater investments in student aid, curricula, faculty, student services, infrastructure, and technology so that they can deliver a high-quality educational experience to all students.