Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College: An Analysis of the Future of Affirmative Action

I.    Background

In Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, the plaintiff, an organization that opposes affirmative action, filed suit against Harvard University in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, alleging that Harvard’s affirmative action program unconstitutionally discriminated against Asian-American applicants.[1] In September 2019, U.S. District Court Judge Allison Burroughs rejected the Plaintiff’s claim, holding that Harvard’s affirmative action program neither engaged in racial balancing (quotas) nor placed an undue emphasis on an applicant’s race in the admissions process.[2] Accordingly, although Harvard considered race as part of its holistic admissions process, its process did not discriminate impermissibly based on race and thus passed constitutional muster.[3] Subsequently, Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. appealed to the First Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that Harvard’s admissions process imposed a de facto “racial penalty” on Asian-American applicants.

On September 16, 2020, the First Circuit heard oral arguments and the three-member panel appeared skeptical of the appellant’s arguments.[4]  Judge Sandra Lynch, for example, stated that “[y]our argument seems to come down to ‘Harvard must admit based only on academic rating and may not consider anything else,’” an argument that would contravene the United States Supreme Court’s jurisprudence holding that race may be considered as part of a holistic admissions process.[5] The oral argument suggests that the First Circuit is likely to uphold the district court’s decision, but that will almost certainly not be the end of the story. The Supreme Court will likely grant certiorari to consider the permissible contours of affirmative action programs and the extent to which colleges and universities may consider race in the admissions process.

II.    Analysis of Affirmative Action Jurisprudence

The United States Supreme Court’s jurisprudence regarding affirmative action provides a reasonably justifiable basis upon which to uphold the constitutionality of affirmative action programs.

To begin with, in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the Court held that the value in promoting educational diversity was sufficiently compelling to justify the use of race in the admissions process.[6] Indeed, few could gainsay that diversity confers a substantial benefit upon universities, students, and the community. A diverse student body exposes students to various perspectives, enables students to interact with others from different backgrounds and experiences, and facilitates an awareness of the obstacles and adversity that many minorities have overcome. As Judge Burroughs emphasized, “students who are admitted to Harvard and choose to attend will live and learn surrounded by all sorts of people, with all sorts of experiences, beliefs and talents,” and, as such, “race-conscious admissions programs have an important place in society and help ensure that colleges and universities can offer a diverse atmosphere that fosters learning.”[7]

Importantly, however, the Court in Bakke emphasized – and rightly so – that a university’s admissions process must be narrowly tailored to ensure a holistic and individualized consideration of every applicant, such that race cannot the sole or even predominant factor in the admissions process.[8] And in Gratz v. Bollinger, the Court reaffirmed this principle, invalidating the University of Michigan’s undergraduate admissions policy because it automatically awarded twenty points toward admission for minority applicants (100 points were required for admission, with a perfect score on the SAT earning twelve points).[9] This approach permitted precisely what Bakke prohibited – an excessive emphasis on race in the admissions process.

Conversely, in Grutter v. Bollinger, the Court upheld the University of Michigan Law School’s affirmative action program, holding that, although the law school’s admissions process favored underrepresented minority groups, the admissions process was sufficiently holistic to ensure an individualized consideration of every applicant.[10] Additionally, the Court held that the law school’s objective of obtaining a “critical mass” of minority students was sufficiently tailored to further the interest in achieving a diverse student body.[11] The “critical mass” rationale makes sense; one could hardly argue that the benefits of diversity are achieved if the percentage of diverse students are so minuscule

Finally, in Fisher v. University of Texas, the Court upheld the University of Texas’s affirmative action program, although its decision brought uncertainty, rather than clarity, to the Court’s affirmative action jurisprudence.[12] In Fisher, the University of Texas automatically admitted all high school students throughout Texas who graduated in the top 10% of their high school class.[13] Although this policy created substantial diversity among the University of Texas’s incoming classes, the university nonetheless included race as a factor in its holistic admissions process, which was reserved for students who did not graduate in the top 10% of their class.[14] A white applicant who had been denied admission through the holistic process sued the University of Texas, arguing in part that, because the university already achieved substantial diversity through the top 10% program, the use of race in its holistic process was not sufficiently narrowly tailored.[15]

The Court rejected this argument, holding that the university’s rationale for its diversity-related goals, which included the elimination of stereotypes, cross-racial understanding, and preparing students for a diverse workforce, were sufficiently measurable to enable judicial review, and that the university’s determination that the top 10% program was insufficient to ensure adequate diversity was entitled to substantial deference.[16] On this basis, the Court upheld the university’s affirmative action program, although the Court’s decision, which failed to apply strict scrutiny (as had been the case in Bakke, Gratz, and Grutter), lacked a meaningful analysis of whether the university’s admissions process was appropriately tailored to ensure an individualized consideration of applicants outside of the top 10% program.[17] Simply put, Fisher muddied the waters and brought confusion, rather than clarity, to the Court’s affirmative action jurisprudence, particularly regarding the legal standards governing the constitutional of affirmative action policies.

Notwithstanding, the Court’s decisions have established several broad principles that provide some guidance regarding the constitutionality of affirmative action policies. First, the interest in achieving a diverse student is undoubtedly compelling, particularly given that it exposes students to different perspectives, facilitates relationships with students of various backgrounds, and, as Judge Burroughs stated, this creates a “diverse atmosphere that fosters learning.”[18] Second, the requirement that universities assess applicants holistically – and thus ensure an individualized consideration of every applicant – at least theoretically ensures that race will not be a predominant or, worse, deciding factor in admissions decisions. Third, it makes sense that courts would be reluctant to interfere in the internal policymaking decisions of universities absent evidence, as in Gratz, that admissions committees are preferencing minority applicants to such as degree  (and thus discriminating against applicants of other races) that renders race, at least in some circumstances, dispositive in admissions decisions. Perhaps for that reason, as Justice Anthony Kennedy stated in Fisher v. University of Texas, universities are entitled to substantial deference in designing affirmative action program 

Opponents of affirmative action, however, offer several arguments that are worthy of consideration. First, the consideration of race to any degree whatsoever is arguably contrary to the fundamental guarantee of equality and equal protection under the law. This argument, however, ignores the fact that for most of this country’s history, universities did consider affirmative action in the admissions process – to the detriment of minority applicants, particularly African Americans. Thus, the notion that we should embrace a color-blind admissions process – in the wake of, for example, segregation and Jim Crow – is untenable and unfair.

Second, opponents may assert the argument that the Court’s attempt to ensure a holistic and individualized admissions process is unrealistic because universities’ contention that race is only one factor in the admissions process is disingenuous. Put simply, in many instances, race is the sole determining factor in whether an applicant is admitted.  To assess this argument, scholars would need to examine the grade-point averages and SAT (or ACT) scores of applicants admitted under universities’ affirmative action programs. If the scores of admitted minority applicants were substantially (not marginally) lower than those of non-minority applicants, one could reasonably argue that race was a predominant, if not determinative, factor. If that were indeed the case, then scholars must examine the percentage of minority applicants that were admitted with lower grade point averages and SAT (or ACT) scores compared to non-minority applicants with similar scores. If such analysis revealed a substantial disparity in the percentage of admitted minority and non-minority applicants, one could make a prima facie case that race was the deciding factor. That would lead to the conclusion that the Court in Bakker refused to countenance: the excessive emphasis on race in the admissions process.

Third, some scholars have argued that affirmative action policies harm minority applicants by admitting such applicants to colleges where they will struggle to succeed academically.[19] Without detailed admissions data from universities and data regarding the academic performance and employment outcomes of minority students, this argument is difficult to assess.

What is certain, however, is that the Court’s decisions, particularly after Fisher, has failed to delineate a workable line between policies that will survive constitutional scrutiny and those that will not. As a result, the law concerning affirmative action remains unstable and unpredictable, resulting in a case-by-case approach that provides insufficient guidance to university administrators. That should change.

III.    Conclusion – The Future of Affirmative Action

Affirmative action policies at universities are likely here to stay for the foreseeable future, and for good reason. Diversity enhances the educational experience for all students and provides underrepresented groups with access to educational opportunities [20]that, for too long, have been wrongfully denied. But affirmative action alone is not sufficient. And there is some merit, based on relevant data, that affirmative action hurts the very groups that there are designed to benefit.[21]

Rather, legislators, policymakers, and scholars should address the root cause of the problem, namely, educational inequality at the grade and high school levels, which results from poverty and affects children of all races. Indeed, after the Supreme Court’s decision in San Antonio School District v. Rodriguez, where the Court held that a school district’s financing system could be based on local property taxes, educational inequality was an inevitable result.  Specifically, the quality of education (and educational resources) in grade and high schools differed substantially, if not alarmingly, depending on whether a community was affluent or poor. For example, the difference between an education at Beverly Hills High School and an education at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles was like the difference between night and day.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that students at Crenshaw High School, or other high schools in impoverished communities, lacked many educational resources, such as access to academic support services, extracurricular activities, and SAT or ACT tutoring services. It should also come as no surprise that the standardized test scores of applicants from impoverished communities, which are disproportionately minority, are substantially lower than those of students in affluent communities, which are disproportionately white.[22]  The upshot is that students from impoverished communities, regardless of race, are less prepared for the rigors of university academics than their more affluent peers.

Consequently, although affirmative action policies rightfully increase the diversity of student bodies and enhance access to education, they do not address the fact that students from disadvantaged or marginalized backgrounds often perform poorly in college, have higher dropout rates, and substandard employment outcomes.[23]

Given this reality, affirmative action policies, however well-intentioned, and as Sanders’ mismatch theory suggests, are not sufficient. Rather, universities should adopt and implement mandatory ‘bridge’ programs and mentorship programs for all students, regardless of race, who reside in poor communities and whose standardized test scores and grade point averages suggest that they may struggle to succeed academically. The goal would be to provide students from non-traditional or marginalized backgrounds with the preparation and support necessary to maximize their likelihood of achieving success in college, employment, and life. Such programs could occur in the summer before a student’s freshman year, be four or eight weeks in length, and focus on skills such as writing, analytical thinking skills, and life skills to facilitate the adjustment to university life. Additionally, each student who is considered “at risk” should be provided with faculty and student mentors who provide support to each student throughout the entirety of their undergraduate career.

Put simply, the debate regarding affirmative action misses the point. To truly benefit the groups that affirmative action targets, universities should focus on race and poverty as the driving forces undergirding educational inequality. In so doing, universities should implement programs that help to bridge the preparation and achievement gap, and that maximize the likelihood that students from traditionally disadvantaged backgrounds will succeed academically and, ultimately, prosper economically.


*This article was co-authored with Daria Brown, an undergraduate student and aspiring law student at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, Georgia. Daria edited and drafted a portion of the article, and provided helpful insights regarding affirmative action policy.

[1] See Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, available at:

[2] See id.

[3] Harvard Gazette, Judge Upholds Harvard’s Admissions Policy (Oct. 1, 2019), available at:

[4] See id.

[5] Id.

[6] 438 U.S. 265 (1978).

[7] Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, available at:

[8] See Bakke, 438 U.S. 265.

[9] 539 U.S. 244 (2003).

[10] 539 U.S. 306.

[11]  See id.

[12] 136 S. Ct. 2198 (2016).

[13] See id.

[14] See id.

[15] See id.

[16] See id.

[17] See id.

[18] See Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, available at:

[19] See, e.g., Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor, Jr., Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It (Basic Books, 2012).

[20] 411 U.S. 1 (1973).

[21] See Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor, Jr., The Painful Truth About Affirmative Action: Why Racial Preferences in College Admissions Hurt Minority Students – and Shroud the Education System in Dishonesty, (Oct. 2, 2012), available at:; Elizabeth Slattery, How Affirmative Action At Colleges Helps Minority Students (Dec. 2, 2015), available at:

[22]  See Abigail Hess, Rich Students Get Better SAT Scores – Here’s Why (Oct. 3, 2019), available at:

[23] See Slattery, supra note 21.

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