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Disrupting Progress: The Supreme Court's Ruling and the Future of Latin Americans' Access to Higher Education

On June 28th, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a historic opinion in Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College and Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. University of North Carolina.[1] The Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to consider race in the university admission process. The Supreme Court’s opinion effectively ends Affirmative Action [2] in university admissions; policies and programs that seek to provide a fairer opportunity of admission to individuals from historically disadvantaged minority groups. Latin Americans are amongst these minority groups, with data demonstrating the impact of said disadvantages persisting to this day. 

 

According to Pew Research Center, Latinos are the least likely ethnic group in the United States to obtain a bachelor’s degree. In 2021, about a quarter of Hispanics ages 25 to 29 (23%) had earned a bachelor’s degree. In the same study, 45% of White Americans and 72% of Asian Americans ages 25 to 29 had earned a bachelor’s degree. [3] The persistent inequality in educational attainment is correlative to the inequality in income distribution in the United States. In a separate study by Pew Research Center, in 2021, 40% of Hispanic adults were in the lower income tier. In this study, only 24% of White adults and 22% of Asian adults were in the lower income tier. [4] The evident correlation between the level of educational attainment and income level sheds light to the disadvantage that Latin Americans face in achieving a bachelor’s degree in the United States. Affirmative Action in college admissions aimed to ameliorate this disadvantage over time.

 

In 2003, the United States Supreme Court set precedent, in Grutter v. Bollinger, allowing educational institutions to consider race in the admissions process. In the Opinion of the court, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor stated, “We are mindful, however, that "[a] core purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment was to do away with all governmentally imposed discrimination based on race." Palmore v. Sidoti, 466 U. S. 429, 432 (1984). Accordingly, race-conscious admissions policies must be limited in time. This requirement reflects that racial classifications, however compelling their goals, are potentially so dangerous that they may be employed no more broadly than the interest demands.” [5] This statement is true in that race-conscious admissions policies should only be used so long as they contribute to the betterment of the United States and its people. 

Data demonstrates that Affirmative Action has been effective at increasing the percentage of Latin Americans who obtain a bachelor’s degree. In the year 2000, 1.5 million Latinos were enrolled in postsecondary institutions, accounting for 10% of postsecondary students in the United States. In 2020, 3.7 million Latinos were enrolled, accounting for 20% of postsecondary students in the United States. [6] The increase that occurred in the span of two decades is remarkable and a significant milestone towards providing equal opportunities to disadvantaged minority groups. However, Latin American individuals remain the least likely to be enrolled in higher education programs and to obtain a bachelor’s degree. Terminating Affirmative Action prematurely, where Latino’s in the United States do not yet achieve education levels and income distribution at a comparable rate to White Americans or Asian Americans may stagnate or, given the correlation between income distribution and levels educational achievement, reverse the progress made in achieving a United States where all individuals have equal opportunities, regardless of historical disadvantages. 

 

[1] https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/22pdf/20-1199_hgdj.pdf

[2] https://www.investopedia.com/terms/a/affirmative-action.asp

[3] https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2022/10/07/hispanic-enrollment-reaches-new-high-at-four-year-colleges-in-the-u-s-but-affordability-remains-an-obstacle/#:~:text=In%202021%2C%20about%20three%2Din,of%20Current%20Population%20Survey%20data.

[4] https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2022/04/20/how-the-american-middle-class-has-changed-in-the-past-five-decades/

[5] https://tile.loc.gov/storage-services/service/ll/usrep/usrep539/usrep539306/usrep539306.pdf

[6] https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2022/10/07/hispanic-enrollment-reaches-new-high-at-four-year-colleges-in-the-u-s-but-affordability-remains-an-obstacle/#:~:text=In%202021%2C%20about%20three%2Din,of%20Current%20Population%20Survey%20data.

Aldrin Ballesteros

Masters in International Relations Candidate, Johns Hopkins SAIS

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