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Interpreting SFFA vs. Harvard and UNC: The Need for a Renewed Commitment to Higher Education Equity

Policy and Advocacy Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice Public Policy Division
August 31, 2023 Scott Sheehan Public Policy Division Director

In the wake of the Supreme Court of the United States’s (SCOTUS) decision in Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. President & Fellows of Harvard College, there has been confusion about what the decision means for institutions across the United States. The scope of the decision and the impact that the decision will have on racially minoritized individuals is yet to be determined. Still, some negative consequences are already starting to occur.  

Shortly after the decision, the Missouri attorney general instructed all Missouri universities to eliminate minority scholarships. The University of Missouri system quickly complied. Inside Higher Ed covers the story here. The ink on the decision had barely dried before this overreach of interpretation began to harm marginalized students. Nowhere in the decision are issues related to scholarships and financial aid explicitly addressed. Eliminating these scholarships for students from a minoritized background is not backed by legal precedent or common sense. Historical inequities, especially financial inequities for racially minoritized students, are well documented; in Missouri, Black, and Hispanic workers make $0.81 and $0.83 per dollar compared to their white counterparts. This SFFA vs. Harvard decision interpretation shows an apparent disregard for following best practices and upholding a commitment to diversity and inclusion. This immediate dismissal of funding for racially minoritized students reflects the knee-jerk reaction that can sometimes accompany judicial decisions.  

In addition to the University of Missouri, other institutions across the U.S. have been implementing similar policies. Western Illinois University (WIU) emailed 300 students of color, informing them that their $1,000 scholarships were revoked. WIU reversed that decision a few weeks later, and those students will get their scholarship money after all. Still, the resulting financial uncertainty and the questioning of the values of WIU will persist in students’ minds. These reactive measures taken by institutions across the U.S. are unreasonable and outside the logic of a risk-averse approach to ensure compliance, as nothing in the case extends beyond the scope of admissions practices. The decision does not mention scholarships, financial aid, recruitment, employment of faculty and staff, and pathway programs. Colleges and universities taking on this misinterpretation of the decision are leading to a chilling effect of racial and diversity issues on college campuses. Now is the time for colleges and universities to take a stand and support their racially minoritized students. The Education Counsel eloquently highlights five actions institutions and systems should take here

In response to many misguided interpretations of the decision, the U.S. Department of Education has stepped in to provide guidance and clarity. Here is a “Dear Colleague” letter highlighting racial disparity in education in the United States and emphasizing the importance of Titles IV and VI and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The letter also highlights that under the decision, universities can consider a student’s background, including experiences linked to their race that have influenced their lives. Here is a Q+A document highlighting answers to many questions institutions have regarding the scope of the decision. Reading the Q+A document should help provide insights to institutions that want to continue to promote diversity and create diverse student bodies. Now is the time for institutions to double down on their diversity efforts. 

Speaking from my lens as the Director of the NASPA Public Policy Division and as a current campus practitioner, I am filled with sadness and hope after reflecting over the last two months since SFFA vs. Harvard. I am sad that in 2023, we as a country continue to create barriers for students who need our support the most. I am hopeful that colleges around the country that truly value diversity will continue to advocate for and adopt new policies to ensure that the strength of our education system and democracy continues to champion pathways that expand on the diversity of identity and thought. In my conversation with Art Coleman and Roger Worthington, recapping the implications of the decision on student affairs, I compared the decision to a boxing match. After years of jabs through state-level anti-DEI legislation and anti-diversity rhetoric, this decision was the haymaker. It is now up to Higher Education to mount our counter-offensive; we can no longer be complacent.