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Biden administration offers more guidance on college admissions

Supreme Court in June sharply restricted using race in decisions

President Joe Biden delivers remarks in June about the Supreme Court's decision on affirmative action.
President Joe Biden delivers remarks in June about the Supreme Court's decision on affirmative action. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Biden administration on Monday urged colleges and universities to reconsider some policies such as legacy admissions, as a response to the Supreme Court decision in June that sharply restricted the use of race in student admissions programs.

In a letter issued Monday from the Justice Department and Department of Education, the government provided guidance that would help higher educational institutions “as they continue to pursue campuses that are racially diverse and that include students with a range of viewpoints, talents, backgrounds, and experiences.”

The guidance noted that colleges can reconsider whether policies such as preferences for children of previous graduates or children of donors “run counter to efforts to promote equal opportunities for all students.” But it did not say universities had to drop them.

And the letter said those preferences are among those “unrelated to a prospective applicant’s individual merit or potential, that further benefit privileged students, and that reduce opportunities for others who have been foreclosed from such advantages.”

The letter also said colleges could reconsider admissions timelines, early decision deadlines, admissions prerequisites like calculus or from community colleges that may keep students of diverse backgrounds from being admitted.

In a call with reporters Monday, Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said the administration still had a commitment to ensuring colleges and universities had a diverse student body.

“Although this decision does change the landscape for admissions in higher education, it should not be used as an excuse to turn away from long-standing efforts to make those institutions more inclusive,” Gupta said.

The announcement comes less than two months after the Supreme Court restricted the use of race in college admissions in a pair of cases challenging policies at Harvard College and the University of North Carolina.

In the decision, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and the court’s five other conservatives upended decades of precedent that had allowed colleges and universities to consider an applicant’s race as part of their admission.

The majority found that the admissions programs at the universities violated the 14th Amendment of the Constitution because they effectively discriminated against those whose race was not preferred for admission, such as students of Asian descent.

Since the decision, the Congressional Black Caucus has pushed the administration to act in response, particularly on issues like legacy admissions. At a CBC event last month, Rep. Robert C. Scott, D-Va., the ranking member on the House Education and Workforce Committee, said legacy and donor family admissions were only acceptable when balanced by affirmative action.

In a statement in response to Monday’s announcement, Scott said the administration should go further and “fully investigate how race unjustly permeates many other policies and practices in our educational system,” in response to the Supreme Court decision.

On a call with reporters Monday, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said there is “a moment of great urgency in higher education,” in response to the ruling, and said the department would push to keep student bodies more diverse.

“The Supreme Court’s decision to end affirmative action has taken away a tool that colleges have used for decades, build diverse campus communities and create equitable opportunities for students of all backgrounds,” Cardona said.

Cardona and other administration officials said colleges still have some tools to make sure their institutions offer opportunities for all students, including targeted recruiting to make sure they do not discriminate.

Cardona also said the administration would issue more guidelines next month on “best practices” for institutions to use in admitting students in compliance with the Supreme Court decision.