5Cs reckon with the end of affirmative action

(Ella Lehavi • The Student Life)

As 5C students prepare to come back to campus, many are wondering how the Claremont community might be impacted now that race can no longer be considered in college admissions. The Supreme Court’s (SCOTUS) June 29 ruling to restrict affirmative action — policies aimed at increasing opportunities for traditionally underrepresented groups — has surfaced questions among students, faculty and administrators about equity in higher education.

In the days following the ruling, Harvey Mudd College, Pitzer College, Pomona College and Scripps College published statements expressing their disappointment in the ruling. Claremont McKenna College has yet to explicitly state the college’s stance. 

Affirmative action programs were first implemented in the 1960s as a strategy to remedy historical discrimination. In 2003, Grutter v. Bollinger established a national precedent allowing schools to consider an applicant’s race when making admissions decisions. Increased diversity has long been cited by many as a benefit of affirmative action, while supporters of the Court’s most recent decision believe the practice is unfair.

All 5Cs expressed their commitment to maintaining student body diversity moving forward as part of fulfilling their respective institutional missions.

“Diversity broadens approaches to problem-solving and helps students see possible solutions through many lenses,” Pomona President G. Gabrielle Starr wrote in a June 29 letter to the community. “It increases capacity for leadership by allowing students to understand and work alongside others in an increasingly complex and interconnected world.”

On June 29, Harvey Mudd President Maria Klawe noted how the decision will specifically impact a school that works to diversify STEM fields. 

“If we are to develop solutions to the many challenges facing the world today, we believe that society needs leaders who understand many different perspectives and who have many varied life experiences,” Klawe wrote

Pitzer Vice President Yvonne Berumen told TSL via email that the college will be doubling down on efforts to ensure the enrollment of underrepresented applicants. In addition to ongoing outreach to under-resourced school districts, the elimination of standardized test scores and partnerships with community organizations in low-income postal codes, Pitzer will also expand its webinar series to reach a broader audience. 

“The efforts I’ve described above take considerable funding, and as a small college our budget is limited,” Berumen said, referring to Pitzer’s status as the 5C with the smallest endowment. “But these barriers won’t deter us from doing everything in our power to accomplish our goal.” 

Adam Sapp, interim vice president of admissions at Pomona, said in an interview with TSL in October that if affirmative action was overturned, Pomona would remain steadfast in its commitment to diversity via outreach, recruitment and affordability. 

“We have an admissions decision-making process that considers an applicant’s diverse background among the many factors used in evaluating students in their local context,” Sapp said.

Similarly, Scripps said in a statement on June 29 that while the college is “disappointed” in the ruling, they will rely on a holistic admissions process consistent with the law.  

In an Instagram post responding to the Court’s decision, CMC reinstated their commitment to campus diversity but did not explicitly criticize the ruling. CMC highlighted Roberts’ assertion that institutions are not barred “from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life” as a means of maintaining diversity.

Our admission policies and practices will continue to focus on the applicant’s leadership capabilities in the context of all personal experiences and societal conditions, and will remain in full compliance with the law and true to our commitment to diversity,” the Instagram statement read.

However, Sean Diament, visiting professor of politics at Pomona, believes the ambiguity of Chief Justice John Roberts’ opinion that applicants can write about race in personal statements, but that institutions “cannot substitute selecting racial minorities based on the essay section in lieu of prohibition on the questionnaire section,” will create confusion and, as a result, be used inconsistently.

Diament also expressed concern via email that other groups, including low-income students, women and LGBTQ+ individuals are likely to lose protections “if this is the first of several dominos to fall.” He says that the Court’s reasoning that “reverse racism” had occurred via affirmative action, and that any consideration of race violated equal protection clauses, can be transferred to any groups that have benefited from “affirmative action-like policies.”

“The main beneficiaries of affirmative action have been white women, so we may see cases in which men’s rights organizations sue institutions for reverse discrimination if they have any DEI initiatives targeting women,” Diament said. “Given how this court operates, I believe this is just the beginning in ending all affirmative action policies, regardless of group — except potentially veterans — and regardless of venue (schools, workplace, sports).”

The majority of Americans poll in favor of race-conscious admissions. Still, even among students who condemn the court’s ruling, there remains some criticism about affirmative action — especially in regards to whether the program fulfilled its promise of correcting for past discrimination. 

Ziona King PO ’25, who serves on the executive board of Pomona’s Black Student Union (BSU), disagreed with the SCOTUS decision but believes affirmative action was never enough to guarantee that underrepresented students would thrive on campus. 

“Representation itself isn’t synonymous with racial equity or justice,” King said in an email to TSL. “These efforts are empty without working to meet the academic and social needs of Black students once they’re admitted.” 

King believes the colleges have failed to create adequate support networks on campus for Black and brown students. In anticipation of a potentially less diverse campus, King said that explicit resources and institutional support from the colleges will be crucial. 

“Black students and faculty have pulled the weight of creating a community for Black students to feel a sense of belonging,” King said. “Affinity groups still labor intensely to get the needs of… students met and bear the weight in actually maintaining diversity within the Claremont Colleges.” 

Vaughn Brown PO ’25, who serves on Pomona BSU’s executive board alongside King, thinks that reparations should be accessible to the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people within a community; by contrast, affirmative action programs have been found to disproportionately help upper-middle class students of color.

“To me, reparations would involve remedying the systems that result in so many disparities that contribute to test score and GPA differences far before students are even at the stage of applying to college,” they said.

Brown referenced loan and housing access, food deserts, cyclical poverty and redlining as examples of such systemic discrimination.

Still, Brown feels the net gain of affirmative action outweighs any potential oversight. “There are so many instances and studies that indicate improved diversity is better for us all, and it is unfortunate…that our country thinks otherwise,” they said. 

Fares Marzouk PO ’25 came from an under-resourced high school where few AP classes and extracurricular activities were offered. As a result, he said his transcripts and activity sheets were less impressive than many of his peers at well-funded schools.

“I was really grateful that I was able to get into Pomona, in part because affirmative action allowed the admissions office to look at me with a truly holistic lens,” Marzouk said.

Marzouk credits the program with helping him access opportunities that wouldn’t have otherwise been available. “Affirmative action paved the way for me,” Marzouk said. “And I’m trying to pay that forward to other disadvantaged groups.” 

Not all students think that the ruling is necessarily a step back. Nikhil Agarwal CM ’24 agrees with the Court’s decision to disband race-conscious admissions. 

“The evidence clearly indicates that these colleges were going beyond using race as a ‘plus factor’ and were instead engaging in blatant racial re-balancing, which is rightly considered unconstitutional,” Agarwal said.

Agarwal thinks that interpreting the ruling as an attack on diversity takes the majority opinion out of context. In order to form a student body that is representative of the United States, he suggests using socioeconomic status instead of racial groupings.

“Focusing on socioeconomic diversity would provide opportunities to students whose talents and intelligence aren’t reflected in test scores, and create a student body which is diverse in its life experiences,” Agarwal said.

King said she has been dismissed by classmates who feel affirmative action is unfair, claiming King, as a Black student, had to clear a lower bar in order to gain acceptance to Pomona.

“The assumption that many students of color got in because of affirmative action reaffirms the racist ideologies embedded in PWIs [Primarily White Institutions] that tell us we do not belong,” King said.

SCOTUS’ June 29 ruling has also prompted a push to end legacy admissions. Dubbed “affirmative action for the rich” or “affirmative action for white kids,” legacy admissions give preferential treatment to students who, by definition, have highly-educated parents with likely high-paying jobs. 

A 2019 study found that 43 percent of white students at Harvard University were legacies, athletes or relatives of donors; in fact, Chief Justice Roberts himself is a Harvard legacy. Opponents of legacy admissions argue that it’s these students, not Black and brown students, who are being unfairly advantaged in college admissions. 

On Tuesday, July 25, the U.S. Department of Education launched a civil rights investigation to determine whether Harvard’s use of legacy and donor preference “discriminates on the basis of race.”  

In the wake of the affirmative action ruling, Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., announced that it will be ending its legacy admissions program as part of its commitment to campus diversity. Wesleyan joins a cohort of colleges to have denounced legacy admissions, including Amherst College, John Hopkins University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

Pitzer, Harvey Mudd, Scripps and CMC all reportedly consider legacy status in their admissions process; Pomona does not factor in alumni-relations. As of July 29, the 5Cs have yet to comment on the future of legacy admissions at each school.  

Hannah Weaver contributed reporting.

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