scorecardresearch Skip to main content

If affirmative action in college admissions ends, here’s who will fill those spots

Supreme Court ruling could result in decreased representation of historically marginalized groups. States with existing bans make that outcome clear.

In this 2018 file photo, students walked past Sather Gate on the University of California at Berkeley campus. The University of California's governing board voted in 2020 to unanimously support a measure to restore affirmative action programs and repeal a controversial statewide ban that has been blamed for a decline in diversity in the prestigious university system.Ben Margot/Associated Press

Next month, the Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling in the cases of Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina, which will likely shape colleges’ ability to practice affirmative action.

If the court curtails the ability of colleges to consider race in admissions, who will fill the small number of spots released by students who would have been admitted in a race-conscious admissions process but not if affirmative action is dismantled?

Asian American students who support SFFA’s lawsuit assume it’s people like them, but this is doubtful. The Harvard lawsuit assumes that the higher your academic credentials, the more likely you are to get into Harvard absent the consideration of race. But the data that came out of the trial show that this is not true.


There are so many more applicants to Harvard with top academic and extracurricular credentials than the university has room for — in fact, former Harvard president Drew Faust once said that Harvard could fill its incoming class twice with high school valedictorians. Among top academic achievers, other factors play a role in admissions, such as legacy status, athletic recruiting, wanting someone from every state, seeking a quorum of students intending to major in the humanities, and more.

These are factors that favor white people over all people of color, including Asian Americans. Why? The previous generation of Harvard was notably more white, hence their children are more likely to be white than students of color and benefit from legacy admissions. Well-resourced white parents emphasize athletic excellence more than their Asian American neighbors, and overall white parents are more likely to have the financial resources to pay for private coaches and camps to facilitate their children’s athletic excellence. Residents of sparsely populated states are more likely to be white than people of color. Finally, white students express greater interest in humanities majors compared to their peers of color. These factors explain why the overall average SAT score for Asian American students who are admitted is higher compared to admitted white students — those white students simply have more of the non-academic credentials. Ending affirmative action will not change those other considerations. In fact, it’s these considerations, not anti-Asian American discrimination, that are the root of differences in academic credentials between accepted white and Asian American students.


Others believe the spots will be filled by poor, working-class, and middle-class students of all races because colleges will pivot from race to class when considering underrepresentation. This too is doubtful.

To substantially increase the number of students from working-class, poor, and even middle-class families, colleges will need a full-scale overhaul of their budgets to earmark the financial aid necessary to admit those students. Will wealthy donors be willing to donate solely to financial aid rather than to overhaul a building that is subsequently named after them? Will the colleges be willing to ask for money for financial aid rather than for a shiny new student center that will ensure prospective students will add the college to their application list? The answers to these questions are much less clear than those who argue for “class not race” in college admissions.

Still others assume selective colleges will take seats away from legacies and maybe athletes, since those categories tend to include predominantly white students, and replace them with a more diverse set of students. Indeed, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas brought up these very issues in the October hearing of the cases. However, if legacy and athlete students tend to be full-pay students, and even bring the college hefty parent donations, without a major financial overhaul they’ll be replaced with other students who pay full tuition — and who tend to be white. So reducing or eliminating sports recruiting and legacy admissions is also unlikely to yield a substantial increase in the number of underrepresented minority students on campus.


To be sure, many find some of these policies, especially admitting full-pay students over those who need financial aid or giving a boost to those already advantaged by parents with a college degree from the same university, distasteful and maybe even downright unethical. I have my own qualms with some of the things that selective colleges do. But absent a radical solution to the financing of elite higher education, the end of affirmative action will not end these policies. Those who think they could benefit should also remember that for every one student admitted to places like Harvard, 19 are rejected — an end to affirmative action will not make a dent in the likelihood of rejection.

Instead, an end to affirmative action will result in decreased representation of historically marginalized groups, both in our selective colleges and in our leadership. States with existing bans make that outcome clear.


In the meantime, Asian American students supporting SFFA, those who say they care about access for economically disadvantaged students, and others devoted to educational access through a colorblind process will wonder what went wrong with their strategy. And the conservative and libertarian funders of SFFA will have quietly furthered their anti-racial justice agenda.

Natasha Warikoo is a sociology professor at Tufts University and author of “Is Affirmative Action Fair?: The Myth of Equity in College Admissions.”