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Monday, Mar 4, 2024

Supreme Court decision against affirmative action creates new challenges for Middlebury’s admissions policies


The Middlebury admissions process will be impacted by the June 29 Supreme Court decision against affirmative action.

On June 29, the Supreme Court issued rulings on two cases that prohibit affirmative action in college admissions, restricting how a prospective student’s race can be used in evaluating their application. The reversal of a longstanding acceptance of an applicant’s race as one factor in a holistic admissions process has prompted questions about how Middlebury will comply with the new decision while striving to maintain a diverse student body.

In a statement to faculty, staff and students on the day of the decision, Middlebury wrote that the court’s rejection of race as a “plus factor” in college admissions was “ending an era of inclusive admissions as we know it.” The college continued that it “will abide by the law as we stay true to our mission and commitment to create and maintain an inclusive community with full and equitable participation for all.” 

The college added that members of the Senior Leadership Group and the Office of Admissions would implement the steps to comply with the court’s decision in the coming weeks. 

Professor of Political Science Matthew Dickinson said he was not surprised by the college’s statement, and called it “politically very diplomatic.” He added that the college is faced with the difficult challenge of complying with the Supreme Court while simultaneously advancing its goal of diversity in the student body.

The college had previously filed an amicus curiae brief with 32 other liberal arts colleges in support of the respondents in the cases Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard College and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina. According to a college statement on Aug. 8, 2022, the brief agreed with Middlebury’s “deep commitment to creating a diverse, welcoming community with full and equitable participation for all individuals and groups” to the benefit of all students.

Citing the amicus brief, the college’s statement also stated that a decision overturning affirmative action “would deal a powerful blow against [colleges and universities’] effort to assemble diverse student bodies.” 

While Middlebury students generally support affirmative action, there is not uniform agreement across the student body. Last year’s Zeitgeist survey found that 68% of Middlebury supported affirmative action, while roughly 23% felt unsure and about one in ten did not support the policy. 

Students of color indicated more frequently that they supported race-conscious college admissions than their Middlebury peers who did not identify as people of color. Fifty-one percent of admitted students in the class of 2027 were students of color, a similar percentage to that of the class of 2026.

Although the college has not yet clarified the details of any changes to its admissions policies, there are several theories about how Middlebury and other universities will respond to the Supreme Court decision in the coming months.

Professor of Political Science Bert Johnson shared what he predicted could be several changes the college may implement in order to continue building a diverse study body while complying with the new restrictions. According to Johnson, Chief Justice Roberts suggested in his opinion that colleges can continue evaluating race if described in an essay in a way that is personal to the student, presenting one permissible way for the college to learn that information about students. But the decision also says that the essay cannot just be a substitute for race in order to circumvent the court’s intentions.

“That can be a tricky line to walk, and the college might want to not be super specific about how it’s making use of those essays,” Johnson said.

Dickinson also noted that individual essays could be a useful tool for the college to understand its applicants’ backgrounds and consider what role race has played in their lives. 

“To the extent that it is a relevant consideration, [applicants] are going to highlight aspects of their application that they think strengthens their candidacy. And the degree that race has influenced their life experiences is certainly something I think a lot of students will highlight,” Dickinson said.

Johnson also noted that Middlebury’s ability to actively seek out a more diverse applicant pool by adjusting its recruitment process was not impeded by the court’s decision.

“The college has some flexibility as to where they recruit [applicants], and who they recruit and try to reach out to, and the ways in which they try to reach out to people. So they could adjust that to try to get a more diverse applicant pool. And I don't see anything in the decision that would prevent something like that,” Johnson added. 

He also suggested that test-optional admissions — a policy Middlebury implemented in April 2020 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic — gives the Office of Admissions more flexibility in who they admit under a holistic review of their application. Middlebury announced recently that it would extend its test-optional policy to the 2023-2024 admissions cycle “as part of a continuing commitment to educational access and inclusive excellence” at the college.

As Middlebury and other universities across the country grapple with how to preserve their commitment to diversity on campus, they must carefully consider how changes could open them up to future legal liability by continuing to evaluate race in some aspects of the admissions process.

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“You could think of a scenario in which a student who is rejected from college, hypothetically, brings a lawsuit along the same grounds that the Students For Fair Admissions did, which is to say that race was a consideration and it was the reason I didn't get in,” Dickinson said. He added that colleges need to be “really careful” with their policies in anticipation of what he believes are inevitable future lawsuits.

While the full impact of the Supreme Court’s decision on Middlebury remains unknown, students can expect the case and discourse around affirmative action to continue into the coming year. Johnson expressed his excitement about using this court case in his courses in the fall as a tool to foster discussion and concentrate on policy issues.

“From my perspective, selfishly, I'm thinking about, ‘Okay, what do I assign from this opinion?” Johnson said. “Court cases are fascinating, because they are the one aspect of modern politics where the people who are making key policy decisions have to theoretically and publicly justify themselves in ways that are more coherent than a speech or a tweet.”

As the college promises forthcoming updates on its policies while facing the first round of applications for the class of 2028 due Nov. 1, 2023, Middlebury has only just begun to grapple with the consequences of the new legal reality in college admissions.

“I don't think this by any means has ended the debate about the utility of affirmative action in college admissions,” Dickinson said. “You may have changed the parameters of that debate, but you haven't removed the essential issue here: how much should considerations of race and ethnicity play into the admissions process?”

Ryan McElroy

Ryan McElroy '25 (he/him) is a managing editor for The Middlebury Campus.  

He previously served as a news editor and staff writer.  

Ryan is majoring in History with a possible minor in psychology or English. He also takes part in Middlebury Mock Trial and on campus. He spent this past summer working as a research assistant in the History department studying Middle Eastern immigration to New England.