Adapting to a World Without Affirmative Action

On June 23, 2003, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor deemed the practice of promoting diversity through race-conscious admissions — affirmative action (AA) — constitutional in colleges, with an important caveat: “We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest [in student body diversity] approved today.”

In 2022, however, six years before O’Connor’s prediction, affirmative action may be thrown out by the nation’s most racially and gender-diverse group of Supreme Court justices in history. Two petitions from conservative litigant Edward Blum’s Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) against Harvard College and the University of North Carolina seek to ban the commonly-used sets of admissions policies. 

On Monday, October 31, the Court heard almost five hours — two hours over their expected discussion time — of arguments from both SFFA and the universities involved in the cases. The Court’s six conservative justices have all expressed disapproval of AA in the past, with some citing it as a form of racial discrimination against white and Asian college applicants. 

In 2022, however, six years before O’Connor’s prediction, affirmative action may be thrown out by the nation’s most racially and gender-diverse group of Supreme Court justices in history.

It’s still unclear whether, when, or how race-conscious admissions in universities may be disallowed. Though a decision is anticipated between February and June 2023, it remains uncertain whether the Court will ban all considerations of race, even as part of an applicant’s broader cultural narrative, and whether they will allow colleges to complete their current admissions cycle with the existing rules. 

Whatever the potential change, Director of College Counseling Ari Worthman says that college admissions officers are ready to navigate it. “One dean told me last week, literally full time — Monday through Friday, 8 to 4 — they were in meetings with their legal team planning for every different scenario because diversity, including racial diversity, is so important that they want to be sure to find ways to [achieve it] within the law.” According to Mr. Worthman, most college admissions teams are actively hoping to represent diverse lived experiences in their student body. 

“In California and Washington, students’ racial identity can only be considered with their application if the student brings it up as part of a larger cultural narrative,” he explains. “Even with that, [schools like] UC Berkeley have seen a continual decline in Black and Indigenous students.” At a Harvard without AA, the Harvard Crimson reports that its population of Black students would be cut by over 50 percent. 

Conversations around AA are a top priority for Lakeside’s college counseling department as well. Mr. Worthman notes the many calls he’s had with admissions deans in just the past month to hear how they might handle a world without AA. “Our goal as a team is to make sure all students and families know well how the system works, and therefore how to navigate it in a way that best serves them.” He also expects that the admissions process will not change as much as how counselors educate students on it and how students might, thus, choose to present themselves as applicants. 

Currently, the cases brought to the Court only apply to college admissions. Thus, the overturn of the law protecting AA won’t immediately impact admissions into independent secondary schools like Lakeside. However, the ruling may still be used as a historical precedent in future court cases for the same effect in kindergarteners to seniors. 

At Lakeside, the admissions team does not use AA or “race-conscious admissions” in the most literal sense. Rather, they make applicants aware of their search for the traits they want in students each year and qualities that are desired in a particular class. Lakeside admissions calls these qualities and traits “annual interests” and “parallel considerations.” 

Prospective students must demonstrate annual interests every single year. Lakeside’s annual interests look for resilient learners, kind classmates, and students with a genuine curiosity for people who are different from them. 

Factors like racial identity are parallel considerations, or a students’ capacity to meet the needs of a particular class. Examples include a grade’s need for volleyball players, students from public middle schools, or even boys who are involved in theater, as requested by the arts department. The selection of students varies each year, depending on a certain grade’s dynamics. Wellesley Wilson, Director of Admissions and Financial Aid, explains, “It’s not about who the committee likes so much as who are the students that demonstrate the annual interests and what does this grade need?”

Wellesley Wilson, Director of Admissions and Financial Aid (Tom Reese).

Ms. Wilson notes that the admissions team has two main goals in racial diversity. One is to build a student body that reflects the Seattle metropolitan area. The second is to make sure students are not the only one of a certain race and gender in their class. 

Though the team has made excellent strides toward racial and ethnic diversity thus far, Ms. Wilson tells that they “still have work to do on trying to reflect the place where we live and [making] sure that students don’t [feel the isolation] of being the only person of the same race and same gender in their grade.”

Ms. Wilson emphasizes that annual interests and parallel considerations are essential to all kinds of diversity at Lakeside, including racial diversity. Without the two admissions’ facets, she is unsure of how the team’s goals would be met. “If we weren’t proactively building and crafting a class, I don’t think we would deliver on making sure that students have an experience where they meet different people and hear different things. We’d be making guesses,” she believes. “There’s a possibility students wouldn’t be with people from different backgrounds, family constellations, or lived experiences, and that feels like such a missed opportunity to be at a place like Lakeside that has so much to offer.”

Thinking about Justice O’Connor’s prediction about the necessity for affirmative action, Ms. Wilson reiterates, “We’re doing pretty good work, but it’s work that takes time, and we’re not there yet.” 

Ms. Wilson notes that the admissions team has two main goals in racial diversity. One is to build a student body that reflects the Seattle metropolitan area. The second is to make sure students are not the only of the same race and gender in their class.

Mr. Worthman also reflects on the former justice’s vision of 2028: “[2022] is my 20th year [in college admissions]. When I go to most college campuses, especially private school ones, white people still predominate them” as the plurality if not the majority. He remembers a university student he met on a college tour in California years back. The student expressed to him the tremendous difficulties of being one of only a few Black students on campus. “To me, this affirms that race-conscious admissions are still highly necessary,” he states.  

Mr. Worthman goes on to address a common misconception regarding AA. “Our current admissions system benefits white people more than any other racial group,” he asserts. Beyond racial diversity, colleges have a host of other priorities such as legacies, recruited athletes, talented artists, first generation college students, families that are generous to the university, and VIPs. “Across all these priority groups, there are more white students admitted than underrepresented students of color,” he explains. “The narrative that it’s ‘easier’ to be admitted to college if you’re in this latter category is simply not true.”

As the Director of College Counseling, Mr. Worthman continues to speak for the department. “Everyone in the college counseling team wants all of our students to go to college and have a rewarding experience,” he sighs, “but part of it is finding your knit of friends, finding your people — feeling like you belong.” He brings up the same point as Ms. Wilson: “It’s hard to belong if you’re one of the only.”