The U.S. Supreme Court is poised to issue decisions on two cases that could restrict colleges’ ability to consider an applicant’s race as a factor in admissions. Many predict that the majority-conservative court will move to end the practice known as race-conscious admissions. 

Here’s what you should know about the court’s anticipated opinions. These decisions will primarily impact admissions at only the most selective of institutions, the kinds that the majority of Americans don’t attend. 

Out of Cleveland’s largest higher education institutions, only Case Western Reserve University currently looks at race when considering applicants. About 15% of the campus’ total enrollment last fall was made up of underrepresented minority students. 

“Most of the colleges and universities in our region don’t have hyper-competitive admissions processes,” said Peter Hinrichs, a senior research economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland whose work uses data to estimate the effects of educational policies and programs. 

Still, though, boosting enrollment and degree attainment in Northeast Ohio is important and needed. Having an advanced degree or credential impacts lots of things, from how much an individual earns to the economic health of a region. Even with these current policies in place, Census data shows only about 19% of Black Ohioans have a bachelor’s degree compared to 32% of their white peers. 

Recent findings from the Pew Research Center show half of adults nationwide disapprove of using race-conscious admissions. Though when people talk about race and school admissions  they think of the policy commonly known as affirmative action, race-conscious admissions is distinct. It aims to increase diversity on campuses. Affirmative action was used to remedy longstanding discrimination faced by qualified minority groups and women, something courts no longer allow in admissions.

The state of play in Ohio

Cuyahoga Community College has an open admissions policy. The city’s other public institution, Cleveland State University, doesn’t consider race. 

Case Western Reserve University, a private institution, wouldn’t go into detail, but it did provide this statement to Signal Cleveland: “Case Western Reserve’s commitment to diversity enhances the experience of everyone on our campus.The university will comply with the law, while remaining committed to diversity, equity and inclusion and continuing to celebrate the richness that diversity brings to the university community, region and world.”

Officials at Cleveland Institute of Music declined to share specifics about their admission policies. Another University Circle institution, the Cleveland Institute of Art, said the SCOTUS decision won’t affect how they reach out to prospective students or issue scholarships.  

“College is attainable and practical and is proven to lead to more earned income over a lifetime, and I can take a student’s lived experiences, creative skills and access to education into consideration during the admission process, regardless of race,” Yvette Sobky Shaffer, vice president of Enrollment Management and Marketing at the Institute of Art, told Signal Cleveland via email. 

Ohio State University currently considers race in its first-year admissions, according to its most recently available Common Data Set. A spokesperson said the state’s flagship institution wouldn’t “speculate on possible changes.”

“We will, of course, continue to follow all state and federal laws regarding admissions,” he added. 

What could come next

Hinrichs, the economist from the Cleveland Fed, cautioned that it’s not clear in advance what the impact on any particular university could be. But, if the practice ends up being banned, he pointed out there could be a spillover effect from one university to another. 

For example, if students aren’t accepted at a more selective place like Case Western Reserve, they might instead turn to another institution like Cleveland State or Tri-C. 

His work has looked at statewide bans on the consideration of race in admissions in places such as California. In those states, he said, universities will often take steps to try to counteract the effects of the bans, like instituting programs that offer acceptance to the whole top 10% of graduating classes at high schools across the state. That’s “kind of a race-neutral way of trying to enroll more underrepresented minority students,” he said.

He’s interested in seeing how institutions respond to the decision if the practice is overturned.

“Some colleges that are using affirmative action now might come up with ways to try to enroll more underrepresented minority students in a way that fits with whatever the laws happen to be at the time,” Hinrichs said. 

Amy Morona covers higher education for Signal Cleveland, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.