The idea of using race as a factor in the college admissions process has always been a controversial one. The practice was encouraged under President Barack Obama, whose support of affirmative action guidelines stemmed from a belief that university campuses benefit from having a diverse study body. But the same practice was challenged in November under the Trump administration, whose officials argued that admissions standards should be race-neutral. On Tuesday, White House officials announced that Trump would reverse affirmative action guidelines and instead, call for college administrators to use race-blind policies, according to Politico.
In 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions asked the Justice Department to reconsider affirmative action guidelines that he argued "pushed the department to act beyond what the law, the Constitution and the Supreme Court had required," according to the New York Times. Now, as a result, the Justice Department has taken out seven policy guidances previously issued jointly from the Education Department’s civil rights division under the Obama administration. These guidances were deemed "unnecessary, outdated, inconsistent with existing law, or otherwise improper," according to Politico. But the change doesn't seem to matter to some universities, whose leaders have already promised to continue on with the admissions process already in use.
“Four decades of case law make clear that race and ethnicity can be one of many factors that universities can consider during the admissions process," said Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, in a statement to Politico. "Public universities will continue to operate in accordance with the Constitution, state law, and past court rulings to ensure they appropriately foster a diverse campus to the benefit of all."
Lawmakers have sounded off on Twitter, with one calling the decision "disgraceful." Under Obama's presidency, government officials encouraged diversity; the administration highlighted its value in the higher education environment and supported legal paths for colleges to consider race in admissions, according to Vox. In 2011, the Obama administration drew up a policy blueprint that gave schools a possible way to construct affirmative action policies using race-based factors that were legally sound from the Supreme Court, The New York Times reported.
In the policy guidance documents issued back then, the Education and Justice Departments notified elementary and secondary schools as well as college campuses of the goal to achieve diversity by “the compelling interests” implemented by the Supreme Court, according to The New York Times. The documents said that the highest court “has made clear such steps can include taking account of the race of individual students in a narrowly tailored manner.”
In one interview with The New Yorker, Obama expressed his belief that the Constitution allows the use of racial preferences within strictly defined limits. “It’s legitimate to say that when the government takes race into account it should be subject to some oversight by the courts,” Obama said to The New Yorker in 2014. The 44th president went on to explain that the overarching problems surrounding race are “rooted in economics and the legacy of slavery,” which have led to “vastly different opportunities for African-Americans and whites.”
“I understand, certainly sitting in this office, that probably the single most important thing I could do for poor black kids is to make sure that they’re getting a good K-through-12 education. And, if they’re coming out of high school well prepared, then they’ll be able to compete for university slots and jobs. And that has more to do with budgets and early-childhood education and stuff that needs to be legislated,” Obama said to The New Yorker.
It may take a while to truly see the impact from Trump's dismantling of past affirmative action guidelines. After all, these guidelines are just that: guidelines. But then again, these guidelines are the official stance of the Trump administration, and schools that openly defy them would do so with the risk of increased scrutiny from both the Justice and Education Departments.