Projected Impact of the U.S. Supreme Court Affirmative Action Decision on MBA Applications

What did the Supreme Court decide on affirmative action?

This past Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court barred using race as a factor in college admissions, ending a decades-long struggle wherein successive courts have endeavored to square affirmative action with the Constitution’s guarantee that all races be treated equally.

The first test came in 1978, when racial quotas and minority set-asides led to court challenges to affirmative action as a form of “reverse discrimination.” In the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke case,  brought by a white man denied admission to the UC Davis School of Medicine, the Supreme Court banned colleges from setting racial quotas but allowed schools to consider race as a “factor” in the admissions process. In 2003, a divided court in the Grutter v. Bollinger case reluctantly allowed colleges to consider race, deeming attracting underrepresented minority groups a “compelling governmental interest,” but one that was subject to strict scrutiny. At the time, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor noted that affirmative action was a temporary corrective measure, however, stating the expectation that “25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary.”

This week, the Supreme Court found that Harvard and the University of North Carolina had simply gone too far. The two schools’ race-conscious admissions programs failed to abide by the narrow restrictions the court had laid out in previous cases and “unavoidably employ race in a negative manner, involve racial stereotyping, and lack meaningful end points.” Chief Justice John Roberts concluded, “Many universities have for too long wrongly concluded that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned, but the color of their skin. This Nation’s constitutional history does not tolerate that choice.” In short, eliminating racial discrimination means eliminating all of it.”

At the same time, Justice Roberts commented that “nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise. But . . . universities may not simply establish through application essays or other means the regime we hold unlawful today.” He added, “What cannot be done directly cannot be done indirectly.”

How will this decision affect MBA applications?  

Probably not in any significant way.

Nine states already ban using race in admissions, including California, Washington, and Florida. Moreover, affirmative action is primarily a burning issue at the most selective colleges, where grades and scores are the dominant assessment criteria, so not all schools will see much change.

Unlike undergraduate or other more-academic graduate programs, top MBA programs are looking for leaders. In addition to evaluating more-mature candidates, typically with four to six years of experience, they assess a holistic set of factors, looking at the applicants’ professional background, career goals, and outside leadership experience, as well as their grades and test scores. Moreover, the schools are consciously trying to assemble a broadly distributed class of students who represent different jobs and industries, career goals, and socioeconomic and personal backgrounds. So, MBA applicants have ample opportunity to highlight their individuality and differentiate themselves in their essays, recommendations, and outside activities. 

Although schools can no longer use race as a factor in admissions, MBA applicants can still describe in their essays how race has affected their life. This means that even though underrepresented minorities no longer receive an automatic “plus,” they can nevertheless discuss their differentiating background in their essays. At the same time, students from overrepresented populations (e.g., Caucasian, Asian, South Asian American) can do the same and will now be on an equal footing.

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