“You only got in because of affirmative action.”

As a group of minority students at elite predominantly-white institutions, we have become numb to this phrase. It disregards the countless hurdles we’ve overcome to access the same opportunities that others had a head start to.

However, these struggles have only strengthened our drive and made us more resilient. Though she previously understood the phrase as an insult, Kimberly Carlton, University of Pennsylvania ’25, explained that the more she read about affirmative action, the more she embraced having benefited from the policy, recognizing that it created “a space to convey my voice.”

Carlton, alongside the authors of this piece, is a part of UPenn’s Summer Undergraduate Minority Research program. Sponsored by the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics and the Wharton School’s Health Care Management Department, SUMR has been instrumental to our growth as underrepresented students navigating the world of health care. The Supreme Court’s recent 6-3 decision raises concerns about whether students like us can continue to occupy elite spaces.

Having all benefited from race-conscious admissions, the repeal of Affirmative Action is a setback in social progress and directly opposes our program’s commitment to equity and inclusion. Affirmative Action may be an imperfect policy, but it is better than none at all.

Striking down race-conscious admissions has already shown dramatic reductions in diversity for undergraduates. In 1996, California became the first state to ban affirmative action at public universities. University of California, Los Angeles saw both African American and Latinx enrollment drop by 52% from 1995 to 1998, with similar reductions at University of California, Berkeley. Michigan also passed a ban in 2006, resulting in a 44% drop in Black and nearly 90% drop in Native American enrollment at University of Michigan from 2006 to 2021.

Both schools argue that reverting to race-neutral measures to increase diversity has failed. UC spent more than half-a-billion dollars on outreach programs aimed at low-income, first-generation and educationally disadvantaged students and made application review more holistic. U-M implemented similar programs, but these measures alone were still insufficient to counteract the declines in diversity. If the most highly-resourced institutions cannot navigate the admissions process without affirmative action, how can other schools even try?

Decreased diversity means more than failing to meet quotas – it has negative implications on a student’s college experience. Surveys conducted by UC report that minority students are less likely to feel that their race or ethnicity is respected and that they belong on campus. These feelings of isolation would likely improve if they could see their diverse backgrounds represented and celebrated.

These negative effects also extend far beyond minorities. A diverse campus enriches the exchange of ideas, dispels racial stereotypes and increases cross-racial interaction for all. When African American and Native American students are the only ones of their race in their courses this promotes feelings of isolation and tokenization. Consequently, active classroom participation is reduced.

Before the Supreme Court, opponents of affirmative action argued that no race should get preference over others under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. While solely merit-based college admissions would work in an ideal society, this ideal is far from reality. Because the United States has not achieved racial equity, social disadvantage alone is not enough in holistic review. Race still matters.

“By leaving out race, you’re completely erasing histories of oppression [and] how hard it has been for people of color to succeed in this country,” says Romee Maitra, SUMR scholar and University of Georgia ’25. “There’s no way to acknowledge [that] anymore.”

It is crucial to recognize the hypocrisy in the ruling: while race-based affirmative action is deemed unconstitutional, legacy preferences and other types of priority admissions that benefit white and wealthy students remain intact. Additionally, the Court notably exempted military academies from their ruling, showing their willingness to put minorities on the battlefield, yet their resistance to allowing them in higher education.

“If they want to decrease the presence of the Black mind, then they sure as hell should also recognize that the Black body is not a commodity,” Carlton said.

Some universities, such as Wesleyan, have already discontinued legacy preferences. This is an essential step in recognizing that affirmative action should not be kept only where it’s politically convenient.

Moving forward, it is essential for policymakers and institutions to seek alternative approaches to increase racial diversity. By investing more into Historically Black Colleges and Universities, we can help students from underrepresented backgrounds thrive. Additionally, expanding pipeline programs, like SUMR, would expose more minority students to opportunities in higher education and connect them with professionals of similar backgrounds. Since 2000, SUMR has prepared more than 350 undergraduates for careers in health care – which 85% have gone on to achieve. These impacts extend beyond education, directly increasing representation of minorities in professional fields.

Affirmative action does not function to position one race above another. It does not give hand-outs to Black, Native American or Latinx applicants. It does not lower the standards or reputations of institutions. Rather, Affirmative Action is a set of policies that allows colleges to contextualize applications through lived experiences. It is an instrument to achieve diversity in thought, experiences, and representation at collegiate and professional levels. It is a way to level the playing field, because like many have said: talent lives everywhere, but opportunity does not. 


Christine Duah

2023 SUMR Scholar

Sydney Grant

2023 SUMR Scholar

Campbell Loi

2023 SUMR Scholar

Azeeza Sarour

Azeeza Sarour

2023 SUMR Scholar

Kelly Su

Kelly Su

2023 SUMR Scholar

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