Virginia Schools and Race-Based Affirmative Action

On June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court ruled university race-conscious admissions programs to be unconstitutional in Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, leaving underrepresented students questioning how they may advocate for themselves.

The United States began implementing affirmative action policies among schools and universities in the 1960s during the Kennedy administration. President John F. Kennedy had a national goal of nondiscrimination by “[taking] affirmative action,” which was ordered to government contractors in Executive Order 10925. The hope of affirmative action is to even out an uneven playing field. Regarding colleges and universities, admissions officers may favor minority students because white students hold educational benefits associated with their race.

According to every university’s Common Data Set, a series of academic and non-academic factors are ranked on a scale for consideration in admissions. The scale ranges from “very important, important, considered, and not considered.” For the 2022-23 Common Data Set of the University of Virginia and the College of William & Mary, racial/ethnic status were “considered.”

Representatives from William and Mary and the University of Virginia did not comment on future plans with the new ruling. However, both institutions released public statements in response to the recent Supreme Court decision. Both statements emphasize the value of diversity, deeming it necessary to an educational institution.

“We’ll have more once there are developments to share,” said Suzanne Clavet, William and Mary’s Director of News and Media. She referred to the released press statement by William & Mary President Katherine Rowe.

“A diverse, inclusive community of learning and research is essential to William & Mary, to the Commonwealth, and to the world,” said Rowe’s public statement. “The data are clear. By uniting insightful people from different nations, backgrounds, identities, and perspectives, we sharpen our thinking and deepen our curiosity. We find new, workable solutions to age-old problems – quickly and with greater sophistication – and we learn more about ourselves along the way.”

Statistics and demographics of admitted students are also available on each institution’s website. The College of William & Mary’s Class of 2026 is composed of 61 percent white students, 12 percent Asian and five percent African American/Black, with the rest of the student body being a mix of different races/ethnicities. The University of Virginia admitted 47.3 percent white students, 20 percent Asian-American, and 8.1 percent Black or African American for the Class of 2026, with the rest of the student body being a mix of different races/ethnicities. UVA’s Class of 2026 was considered the university’s most diverse group in history.

“Diversity, in all its forms, is critical to the educational experience, because students learn not just from their professors but from each other,” said UVA President Jim Ryan’s statement. “Our goal is to prepare students to lead in a complex and dynamic world, and one of the ways we achieve that goal is to offer them as many opportunities as possible to exchange ideas and perspectives with people with different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives.”

According to their public statements, both Ryan and Rowe plan to continue pursuing this goal of diversity within their respective institutions. However, with the new Supreme Court ruling, the burden now falls on applicants to advertise the impact of their race on their life, as institutions can no longer consider race as a factor of admission.

Chief Justice John Roberts said “nothing prohibits universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected the applicant’s life, so long as that discussion is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability that the particular applicant can contribute to the institution.”

In response to this ruling, President Ryan wrote, “We will continue to do everything within our legal authority to recruit and admit a class of students who are diverse across every possible dimension and to make every student feel welcome and included here at UVA. Our commitment to diversity, in short, is not diminished, even if our ability to pursue that goal is constrained.”

“Within the law, William & Mary will remain intentional about recruiting the best and brightest students from a broad spectrum of backgrounds and experiences,” Rowe writes.

UVA has committed in its statement for a follow-up later this summer on the institution’s “approach going forward.” William & Mary has not given a timeline for any further comments, but Clavet said the institution plans to share if any changes or developments occur.