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What the Supreme Court ruling striking affirmative action means for Bloomington-Normal colleges and universities

 a white columned building with trees framing it and a blue sky behind
J. Scott Applewhite
The Supreme Court ruled that race-conscious admissions processes are unconstitutional in a pair of cases involving Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Bloomington-Normal's three colleges responded Thursday to a landmark decision from the U.S. Supreme Court rolling back four decades of precedent regarding the use of race in college and university admissions. In a 6-3 vote, the conservative majority effectively struck down affirmative action, eliminating race-conscious admissions used by predominantly white institutions to diversify their campuses and close the equity gap.

The court determined college applicants should be “treated based on his or her experiences as an individual — not on the basis of race,” according to Chief Justice John Roberts. In her scathing dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the ruling “cements a superficial rule of colorblindness as a constitutional principle in an endemically segregated society where race has always mattered and continues to matter.”

U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood, a Republican who represents parts of Bloomington-Normal and Peoria, said he has not read the full opinion yet but supports its premise.

“Initially, I’m happy with that decision in terms of how we weed out affirmative action,” he said. “I think we’ve made a lot of progress over the past 30 years, and I think the time is right to move on.”

President Biden sided with the minority in remarks made Thursday afternoon. “I strongly disagree with the court’s decision,” he said. “Affirmative action is so misunderstood … Many people wrongly believe that affirmative action allows unqualified students to be admitted ahead of qualified students. This is not how college admissions works.”

The ruling hinged on two cases — one at Harvard and the other at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill — considering whether affirmative action aimed at increasing racial representation of Black and brown students on college campuses was negatively impacting white and Asian students’ chances of getting admitted.

In a statement, Bloomington-Normal NAACP President Linda Foster said the ruling is “an unfortunate outcome for Black students who are attempting to pursue a higher education. As long as racism continues to play a critical role in the lives of African Americans, we cannot ignore the injurious impact associated with the Supreme Court’s decision. Other races had a 400-year head start, so African Americans are constantly playing catch-up. … Striking down Affirmative Action, in essence, minimizes African Americans’ opportunities to level the playing field.”

Illinois Wesleyan University

Illinois Wesleyan University does consider gender and race for selective majors like theatre and nursing. Otherwise it uses academic achievement as the main criteria.

“I actually don’t expect it to affect us,” said IWU President Georgia Nugent in an interview. Nugent thinks the ruling is more likely to impact highly selective institutions like Harvard and Stanford.

“They are deluged with tens of thousands of applications," she said. "Therefore, if they have some criteria that filters some of those thousands of applications, they employ that sort of thing. For institutions like us, we’re about 50% selective. We are considered a selective institution, but we’re not like those places would be.”

Nugent says the diversification of the applicant pool and incremental increase in minority students at her institution reflects the country’s changing demographics writ large.

“With the changing demographics and the degree of selectivity, it’s a natural outcome,” she said.

Illinois State University

A statement from Interim President Aondover Tarhule said Illinois State University does not use race as a factor in admissions.

"Therefore, the Supreme Court ruling will not affect our admissions process," the statement read. "Illinois State employs a comprehensive and well-rounded admissions process that integrates high school or transfer GPA, grade trends, course completion and other factors that may include student co-curricular activities, and evidence of civic engagement and volunteerism."

Once admitted, a student's socioeconomic status, which can be linked to systemic inequity, is weighed in providing financial aid and on-campus support.

In an interview, Vice President for Enrollment Management Jana Albrecht said that while the ruling doesn't change anything policy-wise, she fears it may send the wrong message.

“The thing that I worry about most is what families and students are going to think about the ruling,” Albrecht said. “Is this going to factor into them thinking that, oh, maybe college really isn’t for me?”

Similarly, Nugent has concerns about the larger ramifications of the decision.

“This is sending a very clear message that, to my mind, basically says, ‘not welcome here.’ Not from our university but from our country.”

Heartland Community College

Heartland Community College’s open admissions policy is generally unimpacted by the ruling. Certain programs including nursing and radiology are selective and cap enrollment. A spokesperson for Heartland Community College said the 2022-2023 academic year saw the most diverse student body on record.

Fall 2022 minority student enrollment was up 13% from Fall 2021, and the number of minority students completing associates degrees has gone up, too, nearly doubling in the 2022-23 school year. According to Niche, a website that collects data on colleges and universities, 69% of the student body is white. That tracks almost identically with diversity at ISU and IWU, who have more selective admissions processes and rely less on students from McLean County, which is more than 80% white.

Other ways to continue diversity efforts

Because the Supreme Court ruling focuses solely on race, other actions aimed at increasing diversity on ISU, IWU and Heartland’s campuses still apply.

ISU and IWU are test optional. Data indicate that higher test scores are linked with higher socioeconomic status. Illinois Wesleyan has also reconsidered its written essay requirement and encourages applicants to schedule interviews with an admissions counselor to share the full context of their experiences. Illinois State also accepts personal statements about an applicant’s contributions to their community

These types of strategies form a workaround for acknowledging systemic inequity related to race, without directly considering race as a criterium in the admissions process. The ruling does not say, for example, that universities cannot consider ZIP code, language spoken at home, socioeconomic status or the number of college graduates in a family as criteria to weigh when admitting students.

Eric Stock and Joe Deacon contributed.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.