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What some race-based admissions trends show, as SCOTUS hears affirmative action case


Today the Supreme Court began hearing arguments in two cases that could impact affirmative action. These cases challenged the constitutionality of race-conscious admissions at Harvard University and at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Admissions policies that take race into account have faced plenty of legal challenges over the last several decades. And a key question at the center of the debate is, has affirmative action actually worked to make college campuses more diverse? Well, we're going to talk about that particular question with Dominique Baker, associate professor of education policy at Southern Methodist University. Welcome.

DOMINIQUE BAKER: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: So I know that you've been listening to today's arguments before the Supreme Court. When the Supreme Court issues its ruling on affirmative action, tell me, what specifically might you be looking for?

BAKER: Most of us are looking and saying, OK, we think it's likely that they are going to constrain the use of race-conscious admissions policies. And the question is, how far are we constraining? And so it matters so much more than just for colleges and universities, and it matters so much more than just for initial enrollment. There are programs that are focused on things like helping Black and Latinx students become doctors, right? There are all these types of things within colleges and universities. There are all these other things as well, thinking about the labor market and the workforce, that we have created policies that are race conscious that I think could be touched on depending on the direction the court would like to go in their decision.

CHANG: Well, the purpose of these kinds of race-conscious policies has been to address discrimination that had long put students from nonwhite and less affluent backgrounds at a disadvantage. So how has that been working so far? What can you tell us about racial representation trends at colleges and universities in this country the last 40 or so years?

BAKER: Part of the challenge with this is that we have some states that have banned race-conscious admissions policies, and we have some states that are allowed to use them. And what we sort of see is that states that are allowed to use race-conscious admissions policies have much higher racial diversity compared to states that aren't allowed to use them. But I do think it's important to note that even within institutions that are allowed to use race-conscious admissions policies, there are still cases where you have institutions that are not as diverse as we would want them to be.

CHANG: Well, I know that you've done your own study about what could happen if really selective universities institute some kind of, like, random draw lottery in their admissions process, a process that wouldn't take race or gender or income into account specifically. And I'm so curious, what did you find in that study?

BAKER: We found that regardless of what we looked at to say sort of you're academically eligible for this lottery is if you institute some sort of lottery, you're going to see sharp drops in Black and Latinx students enrolling in both highly selective institutions but also moderately selective institutions - so a significant portion of the country, not just the Harvards and Yales of the world.

CHANG: So what do you think ultimately should be the best path towards equitable college admissions?

BAKER: One of the things that's really challenging about the current state of race-conscious admissions policies is that, over time, the Supreme Court has narrowed and narrowed what the focus of what was supposed to be this broad idea of affirmative action from LBJ. Several different Supreme Court cases have changed the focus to the point that race-conscious admissions policies can only focus really on finding ways to diversify the institution, which is really different than trying to find ways to redress past harms that have been inflicted upon people by purposeful policy decisions. So the ideal way to think about college admissions that would focus on actual racial justice would be to expand the scope of colleges and universities and our country to think about the ways to redress past harms.

CHANG: That is Dominique Baker of Southern Methodist University. Thank you very much for joining us today.

BAKER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Ashley Brown
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.