MIDDLETOWN, Conn. — In 1964, hoping to erase its image as a privileged cloister for white rich families, Wesleyan University contacted 400 Black high school students from around the country to persuade them to apply.
The outreach led to the enrollment of what became known as Wesleyan’s “vanguard” class — one Latino and 13 Black students — which helped establish the university’s commitment to diversity.
Nearly 60 years later, such recruitment practices face an existential threat.
In cases against Harvard and the University of North Carolina, the Supreme Court is widely expected to overturn or roll back affirmative action in college admissions. Many education experts say that such a decision could not only lead to changes in who is admitted and who is not, but also jeopardize long-established strategies that colleges have used to build diverse classes, including programs that are intended to reach specific racial and ethnic groups for scholarships, honors programs and recruitment.
Those rollbacks could then help spur colleges to end other admissions practices that critics say have historically benefited the well-heeled. Some schools have already ended their standardized test requirements and preferences for children of alumni. There is also pressure to end early decision, which admits applicants before the general deadline.
College officials warn that there is no way of knowing how sweeping the court decision will be. But the ruling, expected by June, is likely to have a broad impact on a range of schools, according to Vern Granger, the director of admissions at the University of Connecticut.
“Most people are thinking about the admissions process at selective institutions,” he said, “but I would say that this decision is going to be far-ranging and it’s going to be expansive.”
The cases against Harvard and the University of North Carolina, first filed in 2014 by Students for Fair Admissions, an anti-affirmative action group, argued that the universities discriminated against white and Asian applicants by giving preferences to Black, Hispanic and Native American students. The universities said they use race-conscious admissions because diversity is critical for learning, a claim that drew skepticism from the court’s conservative supermajority during the October hearing.
Recent polls suggest that most people believe colleges should not consider race or ethnicity in admissions decisions.
If the court rules as expected, the class admitted for the fall of 2024 will look quite different, education officials said.
“We will see a decline in students of color attending college before we see an increase again,” said Angel B. Pérez, the chief executive of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. “We will be missing an entire generation.”
Understand the U.S. Supreme Court’s New Term
A race to the right. After a series of judicial bombshells in June that included eliminating the right to abortion, a Supreme Court dominated by conservatives returns to the bench — and there are few signs that the court’s rightward shift is slowing. Here’s a closer look at the new term:
Legitimacy concerns swirl. The court’s aggressive approach has led its approval ratings to plummet. In a recent Gallup poll, 58 percent of Americans said they disapproved of the job the Supreme Court was doing. Such findings seem to have prompted several justices to discuss whether the court’s legitimacy was in peril in recent public appearances.
Affirmative action. The marquee cases of the new term are challenges to the race-conscious admissions programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina. While the court has repeatedly upheld affirmative-action programs, a six-justice conservative supermajority may put more than 40 years of precedents at risk.
Voting rights. The role race may play in government decision-making also figures in a case that is a challenge under the Voting Rights Act to an Alabama electoral map that a lower court had said diluted the power of Black voters. The case is a major new test of the Voting Rights Act in a court that has gradually limited the law’s reach in other contexts.
Election laws. The court heard arguments in a case that could radically reshape how federal elections are conducted by giving state legislatures independent power, not subject to review by state courts, to set election rules in conflict with state constitutions. In a rare plea, state chief justices urged the court to reject that approach.
Discrimination against gay couples. The justices heard an appeal from a web designer who objects to providing services for same-sex marriages in a case that pits claims of religious freedom against laws banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. The court last considered the issue in 2018 in a similar dispute, but failed to yield a definitive ruling.
Immigration. The Supreme Court will hear arguments on the constitutionality of a 1986 law that makes it a crime to urge unauthorized immigrants to stay in the United States. The justices had already heard arguments on that question three years ago; several of them suggested then that the law violated the First Amendment.
Mr. Granger, who also serves as president of the association for college admission counseling, expects changes even at the community college level. Citing drops in applications following statewide bans on affirmative action in Michigan and California, he said that some students from underrepresented groups may simply not apply.
The institutions most likely to be dramatically affected are the 200 colleges and universities regarded as “selective” — meaning they admit 50 percent or fewer of their applicants. And for smaller, highly selective liberal arts colleges, like Wesleyan, the impact on college culture could be particularly noticeable, as professors on these tightly knit campuses say their small classes thrive on interactions by a diverse group of students.
A group of 33 of these schools submitted a brief in August to the Supreme Court. Some of them had graduated Black students even before the Civil War.
“The probability of Black applicants receiving offers of admission would drop to half that of white students, and the percentage of Black students matriculating would drop from roughly 7.1 percent of the student body to 2.1 percent,” the brief said, predicting a return to “1960s levels.”
Some schools, including Wesleyan, said they hope increased outreach to underserved communities would offset some of the impact of a Supreme Court ruling. But they may be limited in what they can do.
The court could prevent colleges from purchasing lists of potential applicants that focus on race and ethnicity, a common practice used in recruitment, Dr. Pérez said.
“Fly-ins,” in which certain students are provided expense-paid visits to campuses, could also be on the chopping block. So could scholarship programs designated for students of color, which many rely on to afford tuition.
“Fly-in programs, scholarship programs, partnerships with churches and community-based organizations, where does it end?” Dr. Pérez asked.
At the University of Connecticut, Mr. Granger said that a diversity leadership program, UConn Summer Lead, which hosts mostly students from underserved groups, might have to be revised.
Kenneth L. Marcus, an education official in the Trump Administration, said that many admissions practices that benefit certain racial groups may already violate some provisions of the Civil Rights Act.
To avoid legal challenges, many of these programs broaden eligibility — to applicants, for example, who would be the first in their families to attend college.
But even under this criteria, he said, “Middle-class white students would, as a general rule, be excluded from such programs on racial grounds.”
The Supreme Court’s decision could further clarify the legality of these programs, said Mr. Marcus, who is now chairman of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law.
Colleges are planning behind the scenes for the court ruling, though they are reluctant to release plans, worried about potentially opening themselves up to legal action.
“We don’t want to get ahead of the court, and we don’t want to give the court any ideas,” Dr. Pérez said.
But some have made pre-emptive moves. Standardized tests, for instance, have long been criticized for handicapping poor students and students of color, partly because they may not have access to expensive test preparation classes.
And Students for Fair Admissions relied on test scores to try to prove that Harvard and the University of North Carolina discriminated against white and Asian applicants.
Now “test optional” policies, which grew exponentially during the pandemic, are becoming the new normal. More than 1,800 four-year colleges say they do not require SAT or ACT scores. And the number of students taking the SAT dropped to 1.7 million in the high school class of 2022 from nearly 2.2 million in the class of 2020.
Anthony A. Jack, a professor at Harvard’s graduate school of education, predicted that the court decision will “remove the stranglehold of the SAT.”
Julie J. Park, an education professor at the University of Maryland, said that students from underserved backgrounds are less likely to submit their standardized test scores when they apply.
More on the U.S. Supreme Court
- New York’s Gun Law: The Supreme Court let stand, for now, a state law that placed strict limits on carrying guns outside the home. The measure was enacted in response to a ruling by the court in June that struck down a restrictive gun control law.
- Donors Meet the Justices: A charity was created to preserve the court’s history. It also became a door to nine of America’s most powerful people.
- Title 42: The court said that the pandemic-era policy that restricted migration at the southern border would remain in place for now, delaying the potential for a huge increase in unlawful crossings.
- Year-End Report: Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. devoted his annual report on the federal judiciary to threats to judges’ physical safety. The report shed no light on the leak of the court’s draft Roe opinion or on calls for more rigorous ethics rules for justices.
“It tells me something that half of Black and Latinx students are saying, ‘I don’t want to submit my test scores,’” Dr. Park said, adding that research shows that test-optional policies have a small but positive impact on enrollment of underserved minority students.
The College Board, which administers the SAT, said in a statement that, in the class of 2022, nearly 1.3 million U.S. students had scores that affirmed or exceeded the level of their high school grade-point average, suggesting that for some students, the test could open doors to college.
While the biggest impact of a ruling overturning race-conscious admissions will fall on students of color, many white and wealthy students may also feel repercussions.
At Scarsdale High School, an affluent New York suburb, the director of counseling, Oren Iosepovici, recently warned parents in a meeting that the move to “test optional” has changed the competition and forced a rethinking.
Colleges may now emphasize different qualities in students, he said, questioning whether credentials long-considered critical, such as Advanced Placement tests, will remain important for some students.
“This isn’t just something that colleges are grappling with,” Dr. Pérez said. “I think it will change the way high schools advise students.”
Some opponents of affirmative action have argued that preferences should be based on socioeconomic class rather than race, and they have also opposed special considerations that benefit the affluent.
Richard D. Kahlenberg, an education consultant and writer who advised plaintiffs in the Fair Admissions case, said that early decision programs may be vulnerable. Early decision attracts wealthier applicants because students are asked to commit to attending that school, frequently before they can review financial aid packages.
“It’s one of the inequalities built into the system,” said Dr. Kahlenberg, who has argued for class-based affirmative action.
Alumni children may also lose their boost. Tufts University in Medford, Mass., is considering eliminating that advantage, according to Patrick Collins, a spokesman. That would place Tufts in a small group of highly selective private schools banning legacy preferences, including Johns Hopkins, M.I.T. and Amherst College.
Matthew L. McGann, Amherst’s dean of admissions, said the school has been planning for the Supreme Court decision: “We’re not waiting for that moment.”
Even so, those measures will not stave off a decline in underrepresented students if the Supreme Court overturns affirmative action, Dr. McGann said. Last year, nearly 20 percent of Amherst’s first-year students were Black.
Among a large group of high school students visiting Wesleyan’s campus last November was Ariel LaSalle, a senior from Goshen, N.Y., who identifies as Afro-Latino.
Mr. LaSalle, 17, said he finds the potential outcome of the Supreme Court court case concerning, even if he will be done with the admissions process before the ruling.
“I think everyone should have a chance,” Mr. LaSalle said.
Wesleyan began its recruitment efforts in 1964, the same year the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the commencement address to a graduating class that was overwhelmingly white.
Today, 6 percent of its students are Black and 11 percent are Latino. It is reviewing race-neutral ways to increase outreach to low-income high schools, community colleges and veterans organizations, according to Michael S. Roth, its president.
Dr. Roth said he worries about what his campus will look like following the Supreme Court ruling.
“There’s a lot at stake,” he said.