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Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action to impact few Mountain West schools

An aerial shot of a university campus with red and beige buildings surrounded by forest and tall brown mountains in the background.
The University of Colorado Boulder
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The University of Colorado Boulder will be one of the few institutions in the Mountain West affected by the Supreme Court’s ban on affirmative action.

News brief:

Higher education in the Mountain West will be minimally impacted by the Supreme Court’s recent decision to restrict institutions on their ability to factor race into who they enroll. Still, those colleges and universities that will need to change their admissions practices say they remain committed to fostering diversity within their student bodies.

The ruling is a major victory for opponents of affirmative action. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his majority opinion that race-conscious admissions policies at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina violate the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“What we now have is a situation where colleges and universities cannot consider race as race,” said Kevin Welner, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and Director of the National Policy Education Center. “In other words, they cannot consider race as a category that a student is put in as part of what was called a holistic analysis of the student's application.”

This decision will mainly affect a couple hundred schools with highly selective admissions processes in the region. Major universities in Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Nevada and Colorado have already said they don’t factor race into their enrollment decisions.

“In the end, regardless of the tides of legal interpretation, if you have the talent and the motivation to earn a college degree, CSU looks forward to welcoming you,” said a representative for Colorado State University in a statement reacting to the ruling.

Other colleges and universities, meanwhile, have criticized the Supreme Court’s ruling, saying it will make diversity harder to accomplish locally and nationally as long as elite institutions remain critical pipelines for powerful corporations and organizations. Additionally, in states that have already banned affirmative action, the number of students from diverse backgrounds shrank over time at major universities.

“In 2023, American higher education cannot afford to restrict access, or to be perceived as a place where certain people can’t or don’t belong,” said University of New Mexico President Garnett Stokes in a statement. “Here at UNM we will do and be better for our students, for their sake and for the sake of the nation.”

For the handful of schools that do factor race into admissions in the region, including CU Boulder, Colorado College and the University of Denver, officials say they’re figuring out how to continue their commitments to diversity. Welner said schools can try and enroll more people of color through outreach programs and give more consideration to essays or other means.

“If the college and university is paying a lot of attention to those challenges that a child faced growing up, and the denial of educational opportunities that oftentimes comes with being lower income, that also helps to racially and ethnically diversify the class,” he said.

The political response to the decision largely fell along party lines. Republicans largely praised it, saying it upholds anti-discrimination rights. Democrats said it exacerbates inequality in education.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2023 Wyoming Public Radio. To see more, visit Wyoming Public Radio.

Will Walkey
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