SFFA v. Harvard and UNC-Chapel Hill Diversity in Admissions

In the U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court Strikes Down Race in Admissions Policies

The U.S. Supreme Court Thursday tossed aside more than four decades of precedent that has allowed colleges and universities to pursue the critical interest of a diverse student body through the consideration of race and ethnicity as part of a holistic admissions process.

As ACE President Ted Mitchell said in a statement about the decision handed down in the high-profile cases brought by Students for Fair Admissions against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill: “By denying colleges and universities an essential tool for inviting students with diverse perspectives and experiences to their campuses, this ruling will harm the educational experience of all students.”

Read the ruling
Statement from ACE President Ted Mitchell


ACE Leads Nearly 40 Associations Urging the Supreme Court to Reaffirm the Legality and Value of Race-Conscious Admissions

The Supreme Court should be cognizant of the rights the First Amendment grants to applicants to colleges and universities, and the freedoms it accords to those institutions. And the justices should honor decades of precedent and recognize the continuing value of colleges and universities using limited consideration of race and ethnicity as part of an individualized, holistic admissions review.

By doing so, the justices would properly reject calls for a so-called “race-neutral" regime made in lawsuits filed by the activist group Students for Fair Admissions challenging the admissions processes of Harvard University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, states an amicus brief submitted Aug. 1 to the High Court by ACE and 39 other higher education associations.


​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. Harvard is a federal lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts ​challenging Harvard University's “holistic” admissions process and its consideration of race and ethnicity when reviewing applications for undergraduate admission.

Following lengthy discovery and pre-trial motions, a non-jury trial commenced before Judge Allison Burroughs in October 2018. Judge Burroughs ruled in favor of Harvard​ on Sept. 30, 2019. The trial court decision was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

SFFA petitioned the Supreme Court to review both the First Circuit's decision in the Harvard case and a similar decision from the Middle District of North Carolina, Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina, which had been decided in the school's favor in October 2021.

The Supreme Court certified both petitions on Jan. 24, 2022, and consolidated them under Harvard. After Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson testified during her confirmation hearing that she would recuse herself from the case because she is on the Harvard Board of Overseers, the Supreme Court separated the two cases, in order to allow her to participate in the UNC case. It is expected both will be heard in the 2022–23 term.

Although the cases only concern Harvard and UNC, they have been closely watched, because these policies and practices may have features similar to those of other institutions with competitive admissions. Furthermore, United States Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, writing the principal opinion in the 1978 landmark case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, cited the “Harvard College program” as an exemplar of permissible race-conscious admissions. 

“This kind of program treats each applicant as an individual in the admissions process,” Powell wrote. “The applicant who loses out on the last available seat to another candidate receiving a ‘plus’ on the basis of ethnic background will not have been foreclosed from all consideration for that seat simply because he was not the right color or had the wrong surname.”

Edward Blum, SFFA’s president, is the architect and driving force behind this lawsuit and other cases challenging race-conscious admissions practices at colleges and universities, including the unsuccessful attempt in Fisher v. University of Texas to eliminate the use of race as one of many factors in admissions.


ACE Resources

Post-SFFA v. Harvard & UNC Decision Resources: Admissions and Beyond

To assist higher education institutions as they consider their own policies, practices, and initiatives


In the News

Biden Wants to Help Keep Colleges Diverse. Can He?
The Washington Post (sub. req.) | June 30, 2023

What the Supreme Court Rejection of Affirmative Action Means
Inside Higher Ed | June 29, 2023

Supreme Court Strikes Down Race-Conscious Admissions
Diverse: Issues In Higher Education | June 29, 2023

US Campuses Vow Push on Racial Equity After Supreme Court Ruling
Times Higher Education (sub. req.) | June 29, 2023

Supreme Court Rules Against Race-Conscious Admissions at Harvard and UNC-Chapel Hill
Higher Ed Dive | June 29, 2023

The Supreme Court’s Decision Reveals a Gulf Between Two Views of Race and Merit
The Chronicle of Higher Education (sub. req.) | June 29, 2023

With Supreme Court Decision, College Admissions Could Become More Subjective
The New York Times (sub. req.) | June 29, 2023

Supreme Court Rejects Race-Based Affirmative Action in College Admissions
The Washington Post (sub. req.) | June 29, 2023

Using Race in College Admissions Protected by First Amendment, Groups Say
The Washington Post (sub. req.) | Aug. 1, 2022

Making the Case for Affirmative Action
Inside Higher Ed | Aug. 2, 2022

Supreme Court Effectively Delays Challenge to Harvard Affirmative Action Policies for Several Months
CNN | June 14, 2021

Students for Fair Admissions Petitions SCOTUS to Take Up Suit Against Harvard’s Race-Conscious Admissions
Harvard Crimson | Feb. 25, 2021​

Harvard Victory Pushes Admissions Case Toward a More Conservative Supreme Court

The New York Times (sub. req.) | Nov. 12, 2020

Appeals Court Backs Harvard on Affirmative Action
Inside Higher Ed | Nov. 16, 2020

Appeals Court Upholds Ruling that Harvard Admissions Process does not Discriminate Against Asian Americans
The Washington Post (sub. req.) | Nov. 12, 2020

Harvard Won This Round, but Affirmative Action Is Weak
The Atlantic | Oct. 2, 2019

‘Everything Is Not Sunshine’: What the Harvard Decision Means for Race-Conscious Admissions
The Chronicle of Higher Education (sub. req.) | Oct. 1, 2019