ED Official: SCOTUS Decision On Race-Conscious Admissions Is an 'Opportunity' to Reconsider How to Support Diverse Students

By Maria Carrasco, NASFAA Staff Reporter

Since the United States Supreme Court struck down the use of race-conscious college admissions policies earlier this summer, a number of groups have raised concern over access and diversity at higher education institutions moving forward. 

At an event hosted by the Center for American Progress (CAP) on Tuesday, Catherine Lhamon, a top Department of Education (ED) official, gave perspective on the recent decision, saying it was an opportunity for higher education to reconsider how it supports a diverse student population. 

Lhamon, assistant secretary of ED’s Office for Civil Rights, noted that her office will enforce the recent ruling that race cannot be considered in college and university admissions. “It will be a new day” for how her office will enforce the decision and what ED will do, she said. Already, her office has received complaints about the use of race-conscious admission policies, with about 200 institutions using race in their admissions policies, which they will need to reconsider. 

However, Lhamon stressed that the SCOTUS ruling is an opportunity, “welcome or not,” for higher education institutions to reevaluate how they can work to “admit, retain, support, and graduate” marginalized students. 

“Nothing in the Supreme Court's decision challenges the ability to engage in those practices,” Lhamon said. “My hope is that colleges and universities that are interested in ensuring that they educate richly diverse classes persist in a commitment to educate richly diverse classes.”

Lhamon pointed to resources ED has already released in response to the SCOTUS decision, including a Dear Colleague Letter (DCL) and a Questions and Answers resource. ED in July also hosted a day-long summit exploring the ways in which higher education leaders can promote diversity. When it comes to how this decision will impact financial aid offices, NASFAA has a webinar on-demand with guidance. 

Throughout the conversation, Lhamon stressed that SCOTUS did not speak beyond the admissions policies beyond Harvard University and the University of North Carolina (UNC), which were the two institutions the court ruled upon. While SCOTUS only ruled specifically on the policies at Harvard and UNC, Lhamon encouraged schools that have similar policies to examine and adjust them if needed.

“We are very clear, the court did not take away the ability to seek a diverse class and to educate a diverse class,” Lhamon said. “The court did not speak to more than it did in the Harvard and University of North Carolina admissions practices. … That leaves a very wide variety of available options still to make sure that we are educating diverse classes of students, and that we not only bring them, but we keep them, and graduate them.”

Over the past few months, higher education organizations and experts have voiced their concerns on how the SCOTUS ruling could impact students of color. Concluding the conversation with a Q&A, an audience member asked if there was any guidance on how the higher education community could find any solace with SCOTUS’s decision. Lhamon reiterated that it is “dangerous to read tea leaves” in what SCOTUS did not explicitly address. 

“There is no question that the court decision dramatically changed the lawful practices of a lot of [institutions] over four-and-a-half decades, so we are now in this new admission cycle needing to operate in a very different way,” Lhamon said. “... We now know that we can't operate those ways anymore. But we were not told, we have not been told, it is not unlawful to engage in other practices that will achieve diverse campuses.” 


Publication Date: 8/30/2023

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