Colorado’s colleges and universities will no longer be allowed to consider race when admitting students, after the nation’s high court ruled Thursday that admissions programs at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina are unconstitutional.
Only a few Colorado schools factor race into their admissions decisions, including the University of Colorado Boulder, Colorado College, and the University of Denver.
The Supreme Court decision to halt 45 years of colleges’ use of race-conscious admissions could reshape campuses here and nationwide.
The decision means the state’s most selective schools won’t be able to consider racial diversity as a factor in enrollment, which could limit the tools they use to balance their student bodies to be more reflective of states and the nation. It also could discourage students from applying to college and deter university officials from addressing racial inequities on campus, according to experts.
Native American, Black, and Hispanic students enroll in college at lower rates than their white and Asian peers.
Ben Ralston, Sachs Foundation president, said race-based admissions were created to rectify systemic inequities that had erected barriers to Black students and students of color. The Colorado Springs-based foundation supports Colorado’s Black communities, including by offering college scholarships.
“The fact that the federal government is saying that historic inequity is something that they no longer want to address is just a clear signal to the students that we serve that those inequities are going to continue to persist throughout the course of their education and probably the rest of their lives,” Ralston said.
The majority of Colorado’s public universities and community colleges do not consider race in their admissions decisions. Students of color go to those schools at higher rates than more selective schools but typically have fewer resources. That contributes to lower overall graduation rates.
Selective colleges typically have more financial and student support resources that help students of color graduate at higher rates.
In admissions, selective colleges in Colorado largely consider the rigor of classes taken in high school, grade point average, application essays, recommendations, and geographic location. Colorado’s public schools do not consider scores from standardized tests like the ACT and SAT, but some private colleges do.
CU Boulder, Colorado College, the University of Denver, and the U.S. Air Force Academy treat academics and rigor as the most important factors in whether to accept a student but do consider race as well.
The decision exempts military academies, noting they are not party to the case and have “potentially distinct interests” that were not considered in the court cases.
CU Boulder, the lone public school on the list, is the state’s flagship institution. Public universities in the state have tried to be more representative of the state’s residents — and, in turn, taxpayers who help pay for their operations.
CU Boulder is 65% white, 13% Hispanic, and 2% Black, according to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. In contrast, Colorado’s K-12 population is just 51% white, 35% Hispanic, and 4.6% Black. The school has become slightly more demographically diverse in the last decade. The student population also has grown, and the school is admitting and serving more students who are Black and Hispanic.
In a statement, University of Colorado President Todd Saliman and Philip DiStefano, chancellor of CU Boulder, said the university would continue to use admissions processes that consider “the whole student,” including demographic characteristics and life experiences.
“As we move forward, the University of Colorado will continue to advance our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion,” they said. “We are steadfast in our belief that a vibrant and inclusive community leads to a richer educational experience for all, contributes to a positive society, and prepares our graduates to excel in an increasingly interconnected and diverse world.”
The Supreme Court decision stems from two cases that were brought by Students for Fair Admissions, an organization headed by Edward Blum, who has spent years fighting affirmative action policies.
The group alleged that the race-conscious admissions policies of Harvard and the University of North Carolina are unfair and discriminate against Asian American applicants, among other allegations.
The universities said they needed to take race into account to build a diverse student body, which brings benefits to the schools and students.
In a 6-3 opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court ruled that argument relied on stereotypes about how people of different races and ethnicities think and behave. The majority opinion argues that using race as a factor in admissions inevitably harms groups that aren’t favored by the policy.
“College admissions are zero-sum, and a benefit provided to some applicants but not to others necessarily advantages the former at the expense of the latter,” Roberts wrote.
Opponents of the use of race-based admissions had argued that Asian American applicants are harmed by the practice.
But the decision also will have an impact on the Asian American community, said Jennifer Ho, a University of Colorado Boulder professor. While Asian Americans are highlighted in the case, they have a mixed view on affirmative action and using race in admissions, according to a Pew Research Center study.
While some Asian American communities are highly educated, many struggle to get to college, such as Hmong, Laotian, and Cambodian students, and those from Myanmar, Ho said.
“Asian American students who are from Southeast Asian groups are vastly underrepresented in colleges and universities and have some of the lowest graduation rates from high school by percentage,” said Ho, a professor of Asian American studies.
Many Asian Americans have also benefited from race-based admissions policies, Ho said, including herself.
“My guess is that some of the parents who are driving the narrative that affirmative action is harming their children have actually been the beneficiary of affirmative action policies,” she said.
The last time the Supreme Court took up affirmative action was in 2016, when it upheld that colleges and universities can use race in admissions. The makeup of the court has since shifted to a more conservative majority.
Data from states that previously banned affirmative action provide a look at what may happen nationwide.
After California and Michigan banned affirmative action, the share of Black, Latino, and Indigenous students at several of the most selective universities fell sharply. Those figures tended to tick back up with time, but never fully rebounded — and they still fail to represent the racial diversity of high school graduates in those states, the Boston Globe reported.
When colleges become less racially diverse, students of color often feel the schools are less welcoming — which could discourage Black and Latino students from applying or staying in college. That matters because Black and Latino students are more likely to benefit from the social capital that comes from attending a top college.
Ralston said more of his students have chosen to go to historically Black colleges and universities because some schools have felt like less of a place for them. He expects that portion to increase as students feel less inclined to consider a school that’s less diverse.
Jen Walmer, Democrats for Education Reform Colorado state director, said she is deeply concerned by the decision and what it means for the state’s students.
“It’s a crucial moment for institutions, higher ed policymakers, and advocacy organizations like ours to take responsibility and to act to protect diversity on college campuses,” Walmer said. “It means that we have to get back to the drawing board and figure out the best ways to do that.”
Experts nationwide, however, have said there’s no alternative way to boost admissions of Black, Hispanic, and other underrepresented students without considering race. Some people worry the ruling will discourage universities from even trying, for fear of running afoul of the ruling.
Kelly Slay, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University, said states could consider sending more resources to colleges that serve higher numbers of students of color. She expects those schools to serve even more students of color after the ruling.
CU Boulder’s Ho said that schools could also try to diversify their student bodies by considering the economic background of students or whether they’re the first in their family in the United States to attend college. She expects some students will still have difficulties even under policies designed to account for student differences.
Advocate Satra Taylor said she hopes foundations will step up scholarship offers to get students of color to college.
“No matter what, we’re going to have to be proactive,” said Taylor, higher education director of Young Invincibles, which works on promoting student voice in policy debates, “and we’re going to have to ensure that we’re creating equitable access pathways for students from marginalized backgrounds.”
Kayln Belsha and Erica Meltzer contributed reporting to this article.
Jason Gonzales is a reporter covering higher education and the Colorado legislature. Chalkbeat Colorado partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage. Contact Jason at email@example.com.