Affirmative Action in Admissions: Historical Trends and How Application Processes Might Change Going Forward

Published July 2023

In June 2023, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that race-based affirmative action, defined in this case as the policy of favoring individuals of under-represented backgrounds who have been subject to discrimination and/or lack of opportunity, as no longer legal in the arena of admissions to universities, except for when applying to military colleges. The United States has a complicated history with this particular aspect of admissions.

Admissions processes to college and graduate programs in the United States are truly unlike any other country in the world. Most countries rely on a combination of grades and standardized test scores when reviewing candidates applying to university and graduate programs. However, the United States relies on many other factors, such as character, leadership, and extracurricular activities. Have you ever wondered why that is the case?

When I was a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I took an elective class on Higher Education and the Law taught by the general counsel of Harvard University at that time. In this course, we discussed many topics, including the policy of affirmative action and how the laws have changed over the years in the United States. In addition, my required course of Economics of Colleges and Universities, taught by a professor who is now the dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, provided much informative detail about the history of how admissions processes have evolved over the last century.

1920s and 1930s: When Elite Colleges Decided to Significantly Change the Process of Admissions

Back in the 1920s, the most prestigious universities such as Harvard and Yale were largely only admitting wealthy Caucasian men of Protestant background. Originally these universities were founded during colonial times to educate the clergy.

In the 1920s, more Jewish male students were being admitted to colleges. The admissions committees of the top universities unfortunately decided to impose quotas for Jewish students and implemented more complex factors into admissions such as recommendations and interviews to observe “character” and activities to show leadership.

Schools like Columbia decided to start citing geographic diversity as a quality they wanted to have in their classes, as many Jewish students were from New York. They would send staff to recruit students from other parts of the country such as the West and South that had fewer Jewish students in the goal to have more Protestant students.

Until 1926, Harvard had admitted all Caucasian male students who were able to achieve a certain academic qualification; but they decided to move to a more selective admissions policy at that point and implement extra steps to be admitted such as requiring an interview and a photograph. Legacy admissions became widely used by top colleges to maintain their more Protestant student populations by giving preferences to the children of alumni. By arguing for a more complex admissions process and de-emphasizing the use of academic qualifications alone, the leaders of the top colleges had more control over selecting the students they wanted to be in their class.

In addition, the SAT was invented in the 1920s as an exam that could be used for college admissions. In the 1930s, Harvard began requiring all applicants to take this test and used it as a method to help select public school students for scholarships and argue they were diversifying their class beyond New England and the Northeast. It was during this time period that set the stage for much of the “holistic” admissions process that we know of today – which regrettably had come about from top colleges being discriminatory towards Jewish students.

1960s: Admissions Changes Due to Civil Rights Movement

In the 1960s, admissions began to use race as a factor to diversify classes with more women and people of racial minority backgrounds as a result of the civil rights movement. Several government orders were issued to give more access to populations that historically had not been given equal opportunity.

1961: John F. Kennedy created Committee on Employment Opportunity and issued an Executive Order for federal contractors to make sure job applicants are treated equally.

1965-1967: Lyndon B. Johnson created an executive order to make sure employees are treated equally without regard to their race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

1969: Richard Nixon created an executive order to pay attention to affirmative action when hiring employees in the government.

Due to these government orders, colleges also began a conscious effort to recruit more women and minorities in higher education.

1970s to 1990s: Supreme Court Cases and State Legislation

1978: Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. Allan Bakke filed a lawsuit when University of California, Davis rejected his application to medical school, which guaranteed 16 spaces out of 100 for minorities. Supreme Court ruled that this was not constitutional to have a quota; however, race could be one factor among many others considered in the process.

1996: Proposition 209 was passed in California which banned the use of affirmative action at their public colleges.

NOTE: eventually Florida, Washington, Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Idaho also banned affirmative action in admissions at public colleges before the 2023 Supreme Court decision.

21st Century

2003: Gratz v. Bollinger. Jennifer Gratz and Patrick Hamacher sued the University of Michigan. Under-represented minorities were given 20 extra points out of 150 point scale in which anyone with more than 100 points was admitted. The court ruled that using points based on race was unacceptable.

2003: Grutter v. Bollinger. Barbara Grutter was denied admissions at University of Michigan Law School and sued as race was one of many factors considered. The court ruled in favor of the law school, and that race could be considered as one factor of many in whether to accept an applicant since the Law School did individual reviews of each applicant. However, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor expressed in her opinion that she hoped “25 years from now, racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.”

2013 and 2016: Fisher v. University of Texas. Abigail Fisher sued the University of Texas which had a policy of taking race into a factor only if applicant was not in the top 10 percent of their high school class. In 2013, the Supreme Court sent this case back to the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit as they ruled that the lower appellate court did not apply the standard of scrutiny they wanted; and voided the lower appellate court’s ruling that had favored University of Texas. In 2015, US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled again in favor of University of Texas, and Abigail Fisher appealed again. In 2016, the case returned to the Supreme Court, and they voted to uphold University of Texas’ policy of taking race into account.

2023: Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina. The University of North Carolina lawsuit argued that the school was discriminatory towards white and Asian American applicants in their preferences for under-represented minorities; the Harvard lawsuit argued that Asian American applicants were specifically discriminated against in their admissions policies. The justices who argued to end affirmative action said that these colleges were not following the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection by the government. They struck down the use of affirmative action based on race but allow the factor of race to be part of a holistic review as long as it is focused on an individual’s merits. Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr. wrote it was acceptable in “considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise…A benefit to a student who overcame racial discrimination, for example, must be tied to that student’s courage and determination…In other words, the student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual—not on the basis of race.”

My Thoughts on Implications of 2023 Supreme Court Decision on Admissions Processes

1) Essay prompts will change significantly and become even more important in the process.

In the past, certain essay prompts have asked for how an applicant contributes to the diversity of the class. There most likely will be more essays about how race has influenced an applicant’s life or has shaped their character or leadership qualities, as the most recent Supreme Court decision allowed this instance to be considered. It may be challenging to write an essay that captures this experience without oversharing or being too focused on traumatic circumstances. It will be a fine balancing act to make sure the narrative is conveyed in a way that seems genuine and authentic to the applicant’s experience.

2) Many schools will choose to hide the race of the applicant as a checkbox on their application forms.

Starting August 1, 2023, the Common Application has decided to give colleges the option to hide the section that identifies the race of the applicant from members of their admissions staff. This move is seen as helping to prevent future litigation against colleges regarding the use of race in admissions processes.

3) Colleges will need to do more targeted recruitment.

Colleges have engaged in particular outreach in the past towards racial minorities, but they will perhaps need to be more creative in their ways to reach out to potential applicants. Perhaps they could specifically engage with community colleges, which traditionally have enrolled a large number of under-resourced students. Or they could visit high schools in under-resourced areas or build more of a pipeline in creating programs that lead to enrolling at college.

4) Colleges will perhaps focus more on class as a factor.

Many elite colleges have more students in the top 1 percent of income than the bottom 60 percent. Perhaps class will be more of a factor and schools could focus on more low income students who have less access to education. More colleges may commonly adopt a system in rating a student in how many disadvantages they have faced in obtaining opportunities. There might be more fundraising to support scholarships for lower income students.

5) Momentum is increasing on the movement to end legacy admissions.

In race-based affirmative action being struck down, there is a movement to end legacy admissions. As of July 2023, the US Department of Education has opened a civil rights investigation regarding Harvard’s legacy admission policy in response to the claim by the Boston-based nonprofit Lawyers for Civil Rights that Harvard discriminates on basis of race by giving a boost to donors and legacies in their college admission process. See this post for a list of colleges that do not allow legacy admissions.

6) There may be even more emphasis on athletic recruiting at the undergraduate level.

The United States is unique in having so much emphasis on sports at the college level. I believe that sports will remain a strong factor in admissions and may even increase its influence as colleges want to field strong athletic teams and these students do have a particular skill that the college wants to promote school spirit and fundraising. So given that admissions based on affirmative action has now been impacted and that legacy admissions might be next, I believe sports will hold on and may have even greater importance since they are related to a skill that colleges highly covet – and when schools have successful sports teams, it may influence alumni giving.


There has been an acceleration of changes impacting the admission process in the last few years in the United States due to the pandemic and a re-evaluation of how candidates are selected which has existed in its current form for decades. I believe that test optional will be here to stay for many colleges as it gives them the freedom to select the students they want in aiming for a particular enrollment profile while maintaining their target median scores for the class in the likelihood that legacy admissions will be altered significantly in the coming years.


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