Supreme Court’s affirmative action ruling has already upended college applications

Teenagers of all backgrounds are reconsidering their shot at getting into competitive colleges. Admissions counselors are rethinking how students should discuss their race in application essays.

The Supreme Court’s ruling Thursday that colleges cannot consider race in admissions has left applicants in turmoil, they say.

Rachel Stagner, who teaches at the private Templeton Academy in Washington, D.C., said she feels sick when she considers how conversations about college with students will go this fall. Her school is small and majority non-white, she said. She knows many students well and often talks with them about their college choices, helping them prepare for the admissions process.

Now, though, she will have no idea what to say - especially to students of color.

“If you haven’t had test prep [or] lots of extracurriculars, I don’t know if they’re going to have a shot anymore, and that’s really sad,” Stagner said. “And I’m just really concerned about what it’s going to do to their thinking about if and how they can get into a school.”

A Black high school student in D.C., who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he fears personal and professional consequences - including possibly from college admissions officers - said the Supreme Court decision limits the universe of schools he considers realistic.

“This might change the whole path of my future,” the 15-year-old wrote to The Post. “Why can’t they just let people like me be successful and make themselves and their families proud?”


The Supreme Court ruling comes after several years of steady declines in college and university enrollment, a trend accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic. The drop began to stabilize in fall 2022, but the total head count across the country is still more than 5 percent below pre-pandemic levels. Trends differed by race: Enrollment among Hispanic and Asian undergrads rose slightly, while enrollment among white, Black and Native American undergraduates fell.

The disappearance of affirmative action from American colleges and universities will probably diminish minority enrollment at top schools across the country, a Washington Post analysis concluded. The Post reviewed 30 years of race and ethnicity data from the eight states that ban race-based admissions policies in higher education and found that selective schools saw dips in Black and Hispanic enrollment, while less selective public universities saw an increase in those student populations.

For students who do apply next fall, the personal essay will pose a host of new, thorny questions - especially for students of color, said Alex Trefftz, who works for Know Your Options, a Virginia-based college counseling company.

In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote that the decision does not bar “universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.”

Trefftz said this part of the ruling will not alter how he counsels white or “model minority” students. But it will change what he says to “Black and Brown” applicants, whom he will encourage to discuss their racial identity if they can frame it in terms of challenges they have overcome.

“It will be dependent on students who feel that is their story to make the implicit, explicit - as much as they can,” Trefftz said.

Roberts’s carve-out amounts to a “small sliver of room that the Court has left” for colleges to learn about an applicant’s race, said David Hawkins, chief education and policy officer at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, which has over 26,000 members nationwide. Counselors everywhere will have to figure out how to “operationalize” that sliver without running afoul of the Supreme Court’s broader ruling against the consideration of race, which will require counselors to perform “a delicate balancing act,” Hawkins said.

Making things more complicated, some students may feel greater trepidation at the prospect of mentioning their race.

Lucy Tu, a 21-year-old student at Harvard who is Chinese American, said she wrote at length about her racial and ethnic background in her personal statement, describing how she grew up as a “third culture” kid - neither sufficiently Chinese nor sufficiently American to fit in at home or into her predominantly white K-12 schools in Nebraska.

“Honestly if I were to go back and apply again in the aftermath of this decision, I would be more scared than ever to talk about my identity,” Tu said. “I’d have a lot more questions, a lot more anxieties about doing so.”

Still, others involved in the college admissions process said it’s too early to tell whether and how they may counsel students differently. Amy Smith Jasper, who leads My College Fit, an admissions consulting company in Richmond, plans to watch how the diversity of student bodies at different schools changes - and advise her clients accordingly.

“Once it really impacts how college campuses are composed,” Jasper said, “that’s when it will really impact the way that I counsel students.”

[How countries around the world handle affirmative action in admissions]

Jasper said she works with students of various races and that applicants seldom share a wish to mention their racial background. It’s much more common for high-schoolers to want to write about their socioeconomic status, she said.

Students, meanwhile, are envisioning new futures, good and bad.

Elijah Wright, a 16-year-old from Arizona, does not think the ruling will affect him personally, given he is white. But Wright, who aspires to attend Stanford and study computer science, laments that the decision may make elite colleges - including the school of his dreams - much less heterogenous.

“There are some really diverse perspectives you can get from minorities that just won’t be there because of this ruling,” Wright said. “It’s not changing where I’m going to college, probably, but certainly it will change the people that will be around me.”


[Affirmative action ruling puts target on corporate diversity programs]

Others, though, are celebrating.

Matthew Yefimov, a white 15-year-old from Maryland, believes the ruling will boost his chances of getting into a good school, given universities can no longer treat his race as a drawback. Yefimov had planned to apply to the University of Maryland, but may now raise his sights to the Ivy League, where “before, I wouldn’t have had a chance of getting in,” he said.

Yefimov said he wants to see historically marginalized groups well-represented on college campuses and suggested that universities should start weighting socioeconomic class more heavily.

“Race really shouldn’t be taken into account,” he said. Schools “should be prioritizing students who come from low-income families or first-generation families - there’s a different way of helping them.”

Kelly Olmos, a Latino first-generation and low-income student in Chicago, is feeling lucky that she managed to get through college admissions before the Supreme Court bombshell hit.

Olmos, 18, will be headed to Harvard next fall. She said she is unsure whether affirmative action helped her gain acceptance; she noted that she was Hispanic in her application but did not discuss her racial identity in her personal statement. Rather, she wrote about her shyness as a young child.

Olmos said she worries for students like her in future - those who don’t grow up with high-level connections or the money for expensive, prestigious extracurriculars. How will they fare now that affirmative action is gone? And what, she wants to know, will it mean for Harvard’s campus over the next four years? Will the student body just grow whiter and whiter?


“I just don’t know,” Olmos said. “Will I have a community there?”

Hawkins, of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said he dreads the message high-schoolers of color might discern in the Supreme Court’s ruling.

“Our biggest fear,” he said, “is that students from underrepresented groups are going to feel that the door has swung shut on them.”

- - -

The Washington Post’s Moriah Balingit contributed to this report.