The Supreme Court of the United States last week issued two rulings of major significance to American higher education. The first ruling, issued on June 29, bans race-based admissions practices, while the second ruling, released a day later, deemed President Joe Biden's student loan forgiveness plan unconstitutional.
Race-Based Admission Practices Decision
The Supreme Court’s majority decision in separate cases involving Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill prohibiting the consideration of race in college admissions is a landmark judgment that will force many institutions around the country to reevaluate their approaches to constructing diverse and inclusive campuses.
Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, emphasized the paramount importance of eliminating all forms of racial discrimination in the admissions process.
The Court has considered the issue of race in admissions five times, beginning with Regents of the University of California v. Bakke in 1978. In Bakke, the Court majority recognized the educational benefits derived from a diverse student body, allowing colleges to consider race as part of a holistic admissions process. Use of race-conscious admissions practices were reaffirmed by the Supreme Court as recently as 2016 in Fisher v. University of Texas. However, last week’s ruling establishes limitations on the duration of such policies, indicating they are not indefinite.
Although Chief Justice Roberts stopped short of explicitly overturning previous precedents in the area of race-conscious admissions, the decision effectively renders them inconsequential. Critics argue that affirmative action policies have played a crucial role in leveling the playing field for historically marginalized groups and may fear that dismantling them could hinder progress towards greater inclusivity.
Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson each wrote dissents from the majority opinion, expressing concerns that the ruling fails to recognize the progress made in promoting diversity and equality. They argued that adopting a colorblind approach neglects the ongoing significance of race in society and overlooks the need to address historical inequities. Justice Elena Kagan joined both dissents.
It is critical for colleges and universities to navigate the new legal landscape carefully. Importantly, while race cannot be utilized as a direct factor in admissions decisions, colleges and universities can consider the influence of race on individual students, taking into account their unique experiences and perspectives. Such an approach acknowledges the importance of valuing diversity beyond demographic categories, enabling institutions to create admissions evaluation processes that consider the multifaceted aspects of an applicant's background, such as socioeconomic status, background, and personal experiences of hardship or discrimination.
NACUBO expects the Department of Education and the Department of Justice to provide resources to guide institutions on lawful admissions practices in light of the ruling within the next 45 days. NACUBO will distribute the guidance when it becomes available; institutions should be prepared to review their admissions practices and make necessary adjustments based on the forthcoming guidelines.
Many institutions will need to reassess their criteria for admissions decisions, considering factors beyond race, such as standardized testing, extracurricular activities, and personal essays. The ruling does not prohibit efforts to create an inclusive environment that actively recruits and supports a diverse student body. Colleges and universities can ensure that their admissions processes align with the ruling while promoting diversity and equal opportunity.
Student Loan Forgiveness Program Dismantled
On June 30, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled by a 6-3 majority that President Biden’s loan forgiveness plan is unconstitutional. The White House plan proposed to forgive up to $10,000 for individuals—or $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients—earning less than $125,000 annually. The Court pronounced that the plan exceeded the Secretary of Education’s authority.
The majority also found that the State of Missouri could represent the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority (MOHELA), a public corporation and instrumentality of Missouri that services federal student loans. The Court also determined that MOHELA had standing to sue, reasoning that harm to MOHELA is harm to the state that created and controls it. Establishing this standing enabled the Court to issue its ruling on the plan.
The Department of Education created an FAQ to assist borrowers with the return of student loan payments. Borrowers entering repayment will get a bill in September or October—at least 21 days before their payment due date—with a payment amount and due date.
The Supreme Court decision only terminates the one-time federal student loan debt relief plan the White House announced last year; Public Service Loan Forgiveness continues to be an option for borrowers. NACUBO encourages leaders at public and private nonprofit colleges and universities to ensure employees are aware of PSLF and the steps to secure loan forgiveness to which they are entitled as public or nonprofit employees.
The PSLF program forgives Direct Loan balances after borrowers make 120 qualifying monthly payments under a qualifying repayment plan while working full-time for a qualifying employer. Most public and private nonprofit colleges and universities are qualified employers.
With both Supreme Court cases casting a glaring light on colleges and universities, NACUBO also urges institutions to consider how this scrutiny will impact public perceptions of the value proposition of a college degree. To help members communicate the value that colleges and universities provide to students, communities, and society, NACUBO created the “More is Possible with Higher Education” slide deck. We encourage you to use this resource to support your communication efforts.
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