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After the pandemic forced classes online, Harvard University junior Swathi Kella watched classmates from an array of backgrounds and races pop onto her screen, their names and faces far more diverse than those of her New Jersey high school.  Now, she worries that the variety she values in her education could disappear for generations to come.

“If affirmative action goes away, opportunities to learn from different perspectives and world views will be limited, and that does an injustice to students,” Kella told me during a break from her classes in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Monday, after a conservative-dominated Supreme Court agreed to hear challenges to race-conscious admissions. “It’s kind of shocking when you think about what this will mean concretely for the student body.”

For 40 years, the Supreme Court has protected affirmative action that helps colleges open doors for racial minorities. It’s a concept many say is more urgent than ever, with racial gaps in higher education widening, threatening years of progress for underrepresented students.  Such gaps could grow even larger once the nation’s highest court considers two lawsuits, one arguing that Harvard actively discriminates against Asian American applicants, the other that the University of North Carolina discriminates against Asians and whites.

Harvard University junior Swathi Kella worries the diversity she values in her college experience could be lost for generations to come. Credit: Swathi Kella

If the court agrees and eliminates consideration of race, the decision could upend college admissions, leaving minorities who are vastly underrepresented at many selective schools and flagship universities even further behind, despite an ongoing racial reckoning aimed at making college campuses more inclusive. The contrast isn’t lost on Angel Pérez, chief executive of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

“There is a real fear of moving backwards on the college access agenda,” Pérez told me, adding that many admissions professionals and college presidents he’s spoken with are alarmed about what the court could decide, at a moment when they are pushing for changes based on equity. “What will our institutions look like if we don’t take race into consideration?”

Colleges, of course, are also deeply worried – as they should be, said Jerome Lucido, an expert on college admissions and the executive director of the USC Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice. So are “industry leaders, the military and social service agencies who count on and believe in a diverse and educated workforce,” Lucido told me.

Related: Racial gaps in college degrees are widening just when states need them to narrow

The cases the Supreme Court has agreed to hear when its next term begins in October stem from a contention that race and ethnicity should play no part in college admissions, an argument brought by Students for Fair Admissions, a nonprofit.  Not surprisingly,  Edward Blum, the activist at the helm of the lawsuits, was elated that the suits will be heard.

“Harvard and the University of North Carolina have racially gerrymandered their freshman classes in order to achieve prescribed racial quotas,” Blum wrote in a statement Monday. “Every college applicant should be judged as a unique individual, not as some representative of a racial or ethnic group.”

Asian-American students who were denied admission to Harvard allege that the university uses racial quotas that discriminate against them, something Harvard president Lawrence Bacow denies. On Monday, Bacow proclaimed that Harvard will stand by “40 years of legal precedent granting colleges and universities the freedom and flexibility to create diverse campus communities,” adding that “our practices are consistent with Supreme Court precedent; there is no persuasive, credible evidence warranting a different outcome.”

“If affirmative action goes away, opportunities to learn from different perspectives and world views will be limited, and that does an injustice to students.”

Swathi Kella, Harvard University junior

UNC spokeswoman Beth Keith promised that the nation’s oldest public university will also defend the way students are admitted. “As the trial court held, our process is consistent with long-standing Supreme Court precedent and allows for an evaluation of each student in a deliberate and thoughtful way,” Keith’s statement said.

Many others I heard from on Monday were angry at the court’s continued involvement in a case they believe was already settled: The Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of affirmative action programs three times since 1978. Two lower courts found Harvard does not discriminate against Asian Americans, engage in racial balancing or use race as anything other than one consideration when selecting its incoming class.

“The goal of these suits — to end the consideration of race in college admissions — is extreme, ignores the history of race discrimination, and threatens diversity and inclusion on campuses,” said Sarah Hinger, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s racial justice program. “Affirmative action helps to create a diverse student body and enriches the educational experience of all students, and it must remain protected by the Supreme Court.”

“What will our institutions look like if we don’t take race into consideration?”

Angel Pérez, chief executive of the National Association for College Admission Counseling

Niyati Shah, director of litigation for the nonprofit group Asian Americans Advancing Justice, also defended race-conscious admissions policies for giving students “the chance to tell their whole story, inclusive of their race, ethnicity and lived experiences, in addition to their academic achievements.”

There were others, though, who welcomed the news that the Supreme Court will hear the case, including Sasha Ramani, a critic of affirmative action and the associate director of strategy for MPOWER Financing, a public benefit corporation that provides loans to students around the world. Ramani said that “using race as a proxy for disadvantage has proven to be both inefficient and problematic,” and said colleges should come up with other ways to reach out to disadvantaged students.

The Supreme Court will be hearing the case at a time of deepening cynicism about admissions offices at selective colleges, after the so-called Varsity Blues scandal showcased ways they give a leg up to donorsathletes and legacies that by some estimates double or quadruple an applicant’s chances of admission. “White people were being ushered in on the basis of privilege, not necessarily fairness or merit,” Hechinger Report columnist Andre Perry observed.

Related: Student voice: Essential diversity will be pushed aside if affirmative action goes away

Harvard has consistently maintained that race is one only piece of a much larger pictureat a student body so competitive that only 1,962 students out of a record-high 57,435 applicants were admitted for the class of 2025 – the lowest admissions rate ever for what Harvard calls the most diverse class in its history. Asian Americans make up 25.3 percent of incoming students, compared with 14.2 percent who are Black and 11.7 percent who identify as Latino.

Speculation about what could happen if affirmative action disappears has been discussed, debated and opined upon for years. For her part, Kella worries about what campuses like hers will look like for coming generations if race is no longer a part of admissions decisions.

“It will really do an injustice to students,” said Kella, who is a member of the Harvard South Asian Association, a client of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in the case. “A lot of us have been very fortunate to learn from different world views.”

This story about affirmative action in college admissions was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters.

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Liz Willen, a longtime education journalist, has led the award-winning Hechinger Report staff as editor in chief since 2011. A sought-after moderator of education conferences and events, Willen also writes...

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