Pittsburgh universities, both public and private, can no longer consider race in their admissions decisions after the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday deemed the practice unconstitutional at two of the nation’s universities.

For more than 40 years, the court has said that universities can weigh an applicant’s race, among other factors, to create a diverse campus that colleges say benefits all students. At least three major local universities – the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and Duquesne University – have said they consider race in their application processes. CMU goes even further, stating that it views race as an “important factor.” 

Supporters assert that race-conscious admissions policies have helped universities boost their enrollment of qualified students of color, but critics argue that admissions decisions should be based solely on academic merit. More than 60% of U.S. adults disapprove of universities considering race in admissions, according to a poll from The Washington Post, but a similar percentage also support programs that increase racial diversity on campuses.

Universities nationwide have enrolled more students of color in recent decades, but gaps in access remain. In fall 2021, Black and Hispanic students made up between 9% and 14% of the student bodies at Pitt, CMU and Duquesne. 

Now, these institutions will need to amend their admissions policies and potentially find new ways to diversify their campuses. 

Ann Cudd, outgoing provost and senior vice chancellor at Pitt, said in a statement that the university believes “diversity, in all its forms, enhances our individual and shared success and improves the educational experience.”

“In the wake of today’s ruling, these guiding principles remain unchanged, and we are evaluating our admission practices to ensure that they continue to be inclusive, fair, and fully compliant with the law,” Cudd said.

In a statement, CMU President Farnam Jahanian reinforced the university’s commitment to expanding access to educational opportunities, adding that CMU has “confidence in our ability both to follow the law and to promote access and opportunity as essential to fostering a vibrant learning community.”

Duquesne President Ken Gormley said in a public statement that the university is “disappointed” in the decision but remains dedicated to “focusing on a range of factors, apart from race, that contribute to identifying students of all backgrounds who will succeed at Duquesne and become the next generation of leaders.”

The court’s decision

The court ruled Thursday on two cases from Students for Fair Admissions, a multiracial group led by conservative activist Edward Blum. The group sued Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, arguing that their admissions policies are racially discriminatory and violate the 14th Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

The court split 6-3 on ideological lines, with the three liberals dissenting. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the conservative majority, which found that the admissions programs at Harvard and UNC Chapel Hill “lack sufficiently focused and measurable objectives warranting the use of race, unavoidably employ race in a negative manner, involve racial stereotyping, and lack meaningful end points.”

Many universities “have concluded, wrongly, that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned but the color of their skin,” Roberts wrote. “Our constitutional history does not tolerate that choice.”

In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the court “rolls back decades of precedent and momentous progress. … Equal educational opportunity is a prerequisite to achieving racial equality in our Nation.”

“This Court presupposes that segregation is a sin of the past and that race-conscious college admissions have played no role in the progress society has made,” Sotomayor wrote. “Superficial colorblindness in a society that systematically segregates opportunity will cause a sharp decline in the rates at which underrepresented minority students enroll.”

Though the justices ruled on the specific admissions programs at Harvard and UNC Chapel Hill, in doing so, the court prescribed what the admissions process can and cannot look like at universities across the country. 

Not all universities consider race – only about 20% of four-year public universities do – and most nationwide accept the majority of applicants. The end of race-conscious admissions, then, will likely spur a drop in students of color at more selective universities that admit fewer applicants, said James Murphy, deputy director of higher education policy at Education Reform Now, a nonpartisan think tank and advocacy organization. 

Locally, that means CMU, which accepted 11% of applicants in fall 2022, could feel the weight of the decision more than Pitt or Duquesne, which have had respective acceptance rates of 49% and 92% in recent years. Chatham, Point Park and La Roche universities say they do not consider race, and information was not publicly available for Carlow and Robert Morris universities.

Because of the scale of impact, the loss of race-conscious admissions is harmful but not a “Dobbs-level decision,” said Murphy, referencing last summer’s Supreme Court decision that ended the federal right to an abortion. 

“If colleges lose the ability to consider race, then I think one thing that happens is we take a step backwards in terms of creating a fairer society,” Murphy said. However, he added: “This is a good opportunity for colleges to look inward and think, ‘Alright, well, what are we doing to bar access?’”

Ten states have already banned the practice of race-conscious admissions at public universities. In half of those states, selective universities subsequently saw growing gaps in the enrollment of underrepresented minorities, according to an analysis from The Chronicle of Higher Education.

How are universities considering race?

In practice, universities may consider race when they’re weighing a number of qualified applicants but are unable to admit all of them, Murphy said.

Universities that use race-conscious admissions are neither setting racial quotas – the court has prohibited that practice – nor providing unqualified students of color with undue advantages, said Dana Thompson Dorsey, an associate professor of education law, policy and leadership at the University of South Florida. Rather, the students who are accepted have managed to meet the admissions criteria despite the disadvantages they’ve faced, she said.

She described the loss of race-conscious admissions as “devastating.”

“For the Supreme Court to say that racial classifications have no place, I would agree with that. But the founding of this country, and the belief of separating people by race and that white is supreme, is where racial classifications came into play and where it still remains a major part of how we treat each other,” Thompson Dorsey said.

Rain falls on Duquesne University’s Uptown campus on Monday, Oct. 31, 2022. Beyond the pedestrian bridge is Pittsburgh’s downtown skyline. (Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Point Park, located in downtown Pittsburgh, doesn’t consider race in its admissions processes. The university “demonstrates a commitment to merit-based evaluation, focusing on the qualifications, abilities, and potential of applicants rather than their racial or ethnic backgrounds,” spokesperson Lou Corsaro said in a statement.

He added that Point Park is committed “to creating a welcoming and inclusive community for all” and that the university’s test-optional policy and location Downtown supports the university’s diversity.

Brady Butler, a spokesperson for La Roche, said the decision does not directly impact the university because it doesn’t consider race in admissions. “The bottom line is any student, regardless of race, who meets our admissions requirements is admitted and can take advantage of a La Roche Education,” he said in a statement.

The university has included goals for increasing diversity in its strategic plan and aims to remove barriers to graduation and retention among marginalized students, Butler said. 

Admissions essays: Viable option or ‘lipstick on a pig’

Chief Justice Roberts wrote that: “Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.”

Without race-conscious admissions, the higher-ed observers who spoke with PublicSource expressed hope that universities could create applications that give students the choice to reflect on how race has impacted their educational journey. Essay prompts that require students to write about a time they overcame disadvantages that do not explicitly reference race could be an option, Thompson Dorsey said.

But even if students talk about race in their applications, the universities must still make admissions decisions based solely on merit and character. In her dissent, Sotomayor referred to the provision about considering discussions of race as “nothing but an attempt to put lipstick on a pig.”

“Because the Court cannot escape the inevitable truth that race matters in students’ lives, it announces a false promise to save face and appear attuned to reality,” Sotomayor wrote. “No one is fooled.”

Prior to the ruling, researchers from Georgetown University found that selective institutions could gain some diverse students by more strongly considering socioeconomic status, but without race-conscious admissions, “they will be extremely unlikely to enroll student bodies that come close to mirroring the demographic diversity of the high school class.” 

“When it comes to the goal of equalizing college opportunity across advantaged and disadvantaged racial/ethnic and socioeconomic groups,” the researchers wrote, “there is no good substitute for the consideration of race.”

How should universities respond?

Murphy, of Education Reform Now, said universities should carefully review their admissions processes to eliminate barriers to diversity and access. One step universities can take, he said, is to remove legacy admissions preferences, which favor the children of alumni who may be less diverse. 

In Pittsburgh, Chatham and Duquesne universities have said they consider legacy, while Pitt, CMU and Point Park have said they do not. Information was not publicly available for Carlow, Robert Morris and La Roche universities. 

“It’s so obviously a preference that runs contrary to diversity, contrary to social mobility. This is where the rubber meets the road in talking about racial equity, justice and diversity,” Murphy said, adding that he’s hopeful that “universities will have a moment of good conscience.”

PublicSource did not receive comment from Chatham and Duquesne universities by press time. Duquesne’s public statement from its president does not mention legacy admissions. Butler, the spokesperson for La Roche, also did not mention legacy admissions in his statement to PublicSource.

Universities will need to be brave in their responses to the ruling, Murphy said. He said universities should not “crawl up in a ball in fear” and abandon other efforts to support students of color that the ruling does not explicitly ban. “Colleges should feel incredibly empowered to still take all legal paths to pursue diversity.”

Emma Folts covers higher education for PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for PublicSource in partnership with Open Campus.