UNC’s affirmative action case explained: What was the complaint and what happens next?

·6 min read

UNC-Chapel Hill has been in a legal battle over its race-conscious admissions process for several years.

On Monday, a federal judge ruled in UNC-CH’s favor, saying the university does not discriminate against white and Asian American students, and it can keep using race as a factor when considering applicants.

However, the group suing UNC-CH, Students for Fair Admissions, vowed to appeal this affirmative action case all the way up to the Supreme Court.

Here’s what you need to know about the issue:

How did this case start?

In 2014, Students for Fair Admissions, an anti-affirmative action group led by activist Edward Blum, sued UNC-CH claiming that the university unfairly uses race in its admissions process.

The group argued that UNC-CH uses race as a primary factor and in a mechanical way that gives preference to Black and Hispanic students when considering applications. And they say UNC-CH has not done enough to find alternatives to improving diversity on campus.

The group is made up of thousands of rejected applicants, prospective students and parents who are concerned about unequal treatment and racial preferences in university admissions processes.

They want race and ethnicity taken out of the college admissions process.

University of North Carolina students wait in line to take their ceremonious first drink from The Old Well on the first day of classes on Wednesday, August 18, 2021 in Chapel Hill, N.C.
University of North Carolina students wait in line to take their ceremonious first drink from The Old Well on the first day of classes on Wednesday, August 18, 2021 in Chapel Hill, N.C.

What is affirmative action?

Affirmative action in admissions is when universities have a practice or policy that favors prospective students belonging to groups that are historically discriminated against.

What are the major issues in the UNC case?

The central question to this case is whether UNC-CH meets the strict scrutiny standard for why and how heavily it uses race in admissions.

Arguments in the trial have centered around three major issues :

Student body diversity goals

Whether race is a dominant factor in a student’s college application

UNC’s efforts to find and use race-neutral alternatives to improve diversity on campus

What is UNC-CH’s admissions policy?

Students looking to go to Carolina can apply using the Common Application or the Coalition Application.

UNC-CH says it does not have a policy for admission, and it evaluates students “holistically” and in the context of their family, school and community.

UNC-CH considers an applicant’s academic background (AP/SAT test scores, GPA, class rank, etc.) and personal background (leadership, race/ethnicity, community service, etc.).

UNC System policy also mandates that no more than 18% of out-of-state first-year undergraduate students may enroll on UNC campuses, including at Chapel Hill.

More information on UNC-CH’s undergraduate admissions policy can be found at catalog.unc.edu/admissions.

New students at UNC-Chapel Hill participate in a campus orientation tour starting in “The Pit” on Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020. Students did not receive the normal first year summer orientation due to COVID-19.
New students at UNC-Chapel Hill participate in a campus orientation tour starting in “The Pit” on Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020. Students did not receive the normal first year summer orientation due to COVID-19.

What is the Students for Fair Admissions group arguing?

SFFA says UNC-CH discriminates against whites and Asian American students in its admissions process by using race as a dominant factor.

“UNC’s use of race is the opposite of individualized; UNC uses race mechanically to ensure the admission of the vast majority of underrepresented minorities,” according to the plaintiffs’ brief filed in January 2019.

One of the key witnesses in SFFA’s case is Peter Arcidiacono, a Duke University economics professor who analyzed and predicted UNC’s admissions data. SFFA lawyers argue his work provides statistical evidence that shows how African American and Hispanic students are admitted at higher rates compared to white and Asian American students.

One example of Arcidiacono’s work is that an Asian-American male applicant from North Carolina with a 25 percent chance of getting into UNC would have his probability increase to about 67 percent if he were Latino and to more than 90 percent if he were African American.

SFFA also argues that UNC-CH has not seriously considered race-neutral alternatives to achieve racial diversity on campus.

What is UNC-CH’s defense?

Carolina defends its admissions process, saying race is an important part of a student’s application, but not a dominant factor.

The university argues that considering an applicant’s race helps improve diversity on campus and enhances the academic experience.

UNC-CH also says it does not use formulas or racial quotas.

The university has also seriously considered race-neutral strategies to diversify the student body, including using new recruiting strategies, increasing financial aid and admitting more transfer students, the judge ruled.

Students gather for a “selfie” prior to a commencement ceremony at UNC-Chapel Hill Friday, May 14, 2021.
Students gather for a “selfie” prior to a commencement ceremony at UNC-Chapel Hill Friday, May 14, 2021.

What does UNC-CH’s student body look like?

UNC-CH welcomed its largest, most academically talented and most diverse class in history this fall, according to the university.

Here are some facts about the new class:

About 20% are first-generation students.

Forty percent of the newest class qualified for need-based aid.

More than a third of the students are from rural counties.

The students come from 94 North Carolina counties, 46 states and 98 countries.

In the past decade, the racial and ethnic diversity of Carolina’s student body overall has stayed fairly stagnant, growing by about 4% overall, according to UNC System enrollment data.

Demographic details about the student body:

As of fall 2021, about 23% of students are an underrepresented minority, up from about 19% in 2012.

About 9% of students are Black or African American, which has hovered around 7% and 8% in recent years.

The Hispanic or Latino student population has grown from about 7% to about 9% over the past 10 years.

The highest growth has been among Asian students, who currently make up 11% of the student body.

And 57% of students are white, which has been steadily falling each year from about 65% in 2012.

The judge in this affirmative action case ruled that the university is “far from creating the diverse environment described in its Mission Statement.”

She said UNC still has work to do and cited evidence that shows “underrepresented minorities are admitted at lower rates than their white and Asian American counterparts, and those with the highest grades and SAT scores are denied twice as often as their white and Asian American peers.”

What other affirmative action cases are similar to this?

The complaint against UNC-CH followed a high-profile Supreme Court case Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin.

In that case, a white student claimed she was denied admission to UT-Austin because she was white. The court upheld UT-Austin’s policy and ruled that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment allows race to be considered in undergraduate admissions decisions.

That case also set the standard that any school’s use of race or ethnicity in admissions is subject to “strict scrutiny” and must be narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling state interest, according to UNC-CH. The court held that strict scrutiny “imposes on the university the ultimate burden of demonstrating, before turning to racial classifications, that available, workable race-neutral alternatives do not suffice.”

A federal judge recently tossed out SFFA’s case against UT-Austin that essentially made the same claims as the Fisher case.

In SFFA’s 2019 case against Harvard, a federal judge ruled that the university should continue to consider race in its admissions process. But the Supreme Court could take up the Harvard case.

What’s next in this case?

Blum, the president of SFFA, said the group is disappointed that the court “upheld UNC’s discriminatory admissions policies.”

The group plans to appeal this decision to the Fourth Court of Appeals and to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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