Northwestern University sophomore Caitlin Wu says she was regularly told to downplay her Asian heritage on college applications if she wanted to get into the nation’s top schools.
Wu excelled at an academically rigorous private high school in Pasadena, Calif. But she worried about impressing admissions officers that have come to expect “perfect” Asian American candidates. And even though she’s part of a minority group on campus, Wu recalls having mixed feelings about affirmative action — policies meant to open doors for students of color — because of a perceived cap on Asian students in elite schools.
“When you talk to other Asian people about this, they all have a very similar experience or understanding of how affirmative action affects us versus white people versus other groups of color,” Wu said.
Despite these concerns, Wu, who helps lead the Asian Pacific American Coalition at Northwestern, still supports race-conscious admissions because she believes it helps broaden the experience for everyone on campus. She argues that Asian students are being used as “political pawns” to divide people of color.
On Monday, this issue will come before the U.S. Supreme Court as it considers two blockbuster cases on affirmative action.
Justices will hear arguments challenging race-conscious admissions programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina. The group Students for Fair Admissions is asking the court to overrule 40 years of precedent that allows both public and private universities to consider race as one of many factors when reviewing applicants. The group says it’s made up of thousands of rejected applicants, prospective students and parents.
Led by conservative activist Edward Blum, who is white, the group says it’s working to “restore colorblind principles to our nation’s schools, colleges and universities.” It claims the undergraduate admissions system at Harvard discriminates against Asian Americans and that UNC discriminates against both white and Asian American students. Lower courts have rejected those claims.
A decision isn’t expected until June, but the court’s new conservative majority is widely expected to side with the plaintiffs and end policies that promote educational diversity.
That means by next fall, students could be applying to colleges that can no longer factor in race in admissions — and that could have devastating impacts on Black, Latino and Native American students. Some experts are calling on school leaders to prepare for a worst-case scenario and find new ways to diversify college campuses, particularly at highly competitive schools like Northwestern that have made concerted efforts in this area in recent years.
Wu says she thinks all students at Northwestern will suffer if the court rejects race-conscious admissions.
“So much of what makes college great is meeting people from different backgrounds and exposing ourselves to new ideas,” Wu said. “[Without] affirmative action, college would be … not as interesting and not as helpful in a lot of ways.”
Rolling back Civil Rights gains
Affirmative action policies have increased the number of Black, Latino and Native American students at elite schools across the nation. But the vast majority attend less-selective schools and do not benefit from the practice, according to professor Alvin Tillery, director of the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy at Northwestern.
“To truly achieve racial equity, none of us should be counting on elite colleges to do that because they’re not doing it now,” he said. “But these programs have been very helpful and impactful for three or four generations of students, myself included.”
Tillery, who earned his Ph.D in political science at Harvard, said the push to end race-conscious college admissions has nothing to do with protecting the rights of Asian Americans.
“It’s all part of a long game to roll back the gains of the Civil Rights Movement,” he said. “And all people of color will lose in that game, if these people succeed.”
Dozens of conservative lawmakers, including two downstate Republicans, U.S. Rep. Mary Miller and outgoing U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, signed onto briefs supporting the case against affirmative action. They’re asking the court to overturn the 2003 landmark decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, arguing that race-conscious admissions violate the constitution’s equal protection clause.
In a brief filed by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the lawmakers say Harvard and UNC’s admissions policies “intentionally divide applicants by race” and “inflict a heavy toll” on Asian American students. Harvard is accused of “penalizing them” with low scores on traits such as likability, courage and kindness.
The plaintiffs argue that race-neutral alternatives can produce high levels of diversity, and that universities should stop “engaging in racial balancing.”
But officials from the University of California and University of Michigan systems — which are barred by state law from considering race in admissions — have struggled to make it work. They each submitted pro-affirmative action briefs to the court.
The UC system says it has experimented with a wide variety of “alternative approaches” for promoting diversity, including outreach programs directed at low-income students. Despite its efforts, freshmen enrollees from minority groups dropped by 50% or more at the most selective UC campuses since California banned affirmative action in 1996.
According to the brief, African American, Native American and Latino students report “struggling with feelings of racial isolation” at UC’s most selective campuses, where they are significantly underrepresented.
Tillery said colleges and universities will have to change the way they admit students in order to preserve racial and ethnic diversity on campus. They could stop considering SAT and ACT scores and factor a student’s socioeconomic status in admissions. And they could end the use of legacy admissions, which overwhelmingly benefit white families.
At Northwestern, Wu also suggests that officials should diversify their own leadership ranks to help bring in meaningful change.
How universities promote diversity
The Supreme Court’s decision will affect all schools, but the impact will be most dramatic on highly-selective institutions that have spent big money to promote diversity in recent years. That includes the Chicago area’s most selective institutions, Northwestern and the University of Chicago.
At UChicago, families earning less than $125,000 per year can now receive full tuition scholarships and other support. Those earning less than $60,000 per year also get room and board covered. The university in 2018 stopped requiring undergraduate applicants to submit standardized test scores, widely considered a barrier for low-income students.
Northwestern declined to comment. According to its website, the university launched the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion in 2015 to “help create and sustain a diverse, inclusive and welcoming environment” for students, faculty, staff and alumni. It recently won a Higher Education Excellence in Diversity Award from INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine for the second year in a row.
Both schools have become more diverse. At Northwestern, diversity rose during the last president’s tenure, which began in 2009. For the undergraduate class of 2024, the percentage of Black students rose from 6% to 10%; Latino students, from 7% to 16%; first-generation college students, from 9% to 13%; Pell Grant-eligible students, from 12% to 21%; and Chicago Public Schools students, from 3% to 6%.
But there’s more work to be done. Kadin Mills, a third-year journalism and Native American studies student, said Northwestern’s “toxic environment” makes it hard for people who don’t come from privileged backgrounds to thrive on campus.
Mills, who is part of the Native American and Indigenous Student Alliance on campus, says the group wants Northwestern to take accountability for its founder, John Evans, and his role in the 1864 Sandcreek Massacre in Colorado. It’s also pushing to create a Native American Studies department.
“It’s very obvious that the system is not made for me,” he said. “Being here is resistance.”
He said this year’s freshman class has the highest number of Native students ever, and credits Native officials in admissions at the school for improving student outreach.
At the University of Chicago, Mark Muchane, a first-year computer science major, says he worked hard to attend an elite university because of the potential job connections and income benefits. His parents were first-generation college students and supported his decision to leave North Carolina to attend the South Side university.
“As a Black student, I thought it was really important since the college decision might affect me later in life, unlike a lot of my peers,” Muchane said, adding that elite universities can “do better” to reach people from all economic backgrounds.
“I think affirmative action should mean more than accepting the wealthy students from every race. It should mean every Black and brown high schooler, no matter where they went to school, has the opportunity to come here,” he said.
The future of college admissions
Thousands of civil rights leaders, scholars, military officials and corporations like Apple and Google have signed onto amicus briefs asking the Supreme Court to uphold affirmative action.
Locally, the University of Chicago joined a brief with more than a dozen Ivy League or highly-selective institutions in support of UNC and Harvard. As Crain’s Chicago Business points out, Northwestern did not sign on to any briefs supporting racial diversity, though it did so in 2015 when the Supreme Court upheld a race-conscious admissions program at the University of Texas at Austin.
Marie Bigham, executive director of the nonprofit ACCEPT: Admissions Community Cultivating Equity and Peace Today, said she founded the organization in 2016 to help remove racial barriers in the path to higher education. She previously worked as a college counselor.
“It’s really clear that it’s white people who are bringing these cases and kind of taking over the space of identity in theory in our name,” said Bigham, who is an Asian American woman. “And that is so infuriating to me that [Edward Blum] thinks he can speak on behalf of the community, which he is absolutely not a part of and doesn’t share those values.”
Bigham says most Americans support race-conscious admissions when the issue is described to them accurately. A recent Washington Post poll found that 63% of respondents favor leaving race out of college admissions — but an equally strong majority of 64% support programs to boost racial and ethnic diversity among students. ACCEPT also signed on to an amicus brief in favor of race-conscious admissions.
Despite that, she knows what likely lies ahead. By next fall, the college admissions landscape may look very different. Bigham says university leaders, and even K-12 institutions, should start consulting their legal teams to determine how a ruling could impact their students.
Many students at Chicago’s elite schools say diversity is essential for creating a campus that better represents society at large.
“I know that people [say] college should be about merit and objective facts,” said Sanjana Rajesh, a second-year sociology and economics major at Northwestern who is South Asian. “But the fact of the matter is there’s nothing [objective] about your life leading up to getting into college. If race isn’t considered as one of many factors, there won’t be diverse student bodies.”