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Virginia universities evaluating admissions policies following affirmative action ruling

People sit near a brick-lined path. A sign behind them in the center of the image reads "RAMS"
Crixell Matthews
VPM News File
Students congregate at the Monroe Park campus of Virginia Commonwealth University.

The Supreme Court ruled against race-conscious admission policies at UNC and Harvard.

The United States Supreme Court ruled against race-conscious admission policies at two universities on Thursday. The decision will likely affect application procedures at colleges and universities, as well as primary and secondary schools, throughout the country.

Several public Virginia schools — including Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech — issued statements saying they plan to review their admission policies following the ruling.

While each noted changes could be required, the universities also reaffirmed their commitment to educating students from historically underrepresented groups.

“We will of course continue to follow the law,” wrote UVA President Jim Ryan and Provost Ian Baucom in a statement. “We will also 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.”

VCU President Michael Rao cited enrollment statistics as evidence for the university’s commitment to diversity in a statement.

“A third of our freshmen class are first-generation students and nearly a third of our undergraduate students are Pell-eligible,” Rao said. “We are proud that our student body reflects such a diverse array of experiences.”

Christopher Newport University law professor Linda Ficht told Ryan Murphy, a reporter with partner station WHRO News, that schools will have to find other ways to ensure they’re maintaining a diverse student body following the ruling.

“For example, a student would be able to say how their race has impacted their journey to college,” Ficht said. “That will still be a discussion that students can have in letters, interest statements, diversity statements and things like that.”

Chief Justice John Roberts noted that such considerations are still allowed, but warned that “[u]niversities may not simply establish through the application essays or other means the regime we hold unlawful today.”

It’s unclear how Thursday’s decision will affect highly-selective public secondary schools in Virginia, several of which have updated their admission policies in recent years to increase students’ racial diversity.

The Supreme Court ruled that the University of North Carolina and Harvard University violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment by directly considering students' race in a way that negatively impacted students from non-preference racial groups and invoked stereotypes.

“College admissions are zero-sum, and a benefit provided to some applicants but not to others necessarily advantages the former at the expense of the latter,” Roberts wrote.

The Fairfax County School Board updated the admission policy at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria in 2020 to increase student diversity, but those changes do not directly consider race. Instead, the policy guarantees an equal number of spots at the prestigious magnet program to students from each middle school in the county.

Student diversity increased for the first freshman class admitted under the new policy, according to the Associated Press. Black students increased from 1% to 7% of the student population while Hispanic representation increased from 3% to 11%. Asian American representation, however, decreased from 73% to 54%.

Thus far, federal courts have been split on the case, with a Richmond-based appeals court overturning a lower court ruling and upholding the admission policy in May. In a concurring opinion, Judge Toby Heytens argued TJ’s admission policy should stand because the policy is race-neutral.

“Having spent decades telling school officials they must consider race neutral methods for ensuring a diverse student body before turning to race-conscious ones, it would be quite the judicial bait-and-switch to say such race-neutral efforts are also presumptively unconstitutional,” he wrote.

In May, Pacific Legal Foundation, the organization which filed the lawsuit against Fairfax’s school board, said it will seek to have the case heard by the Supreme Court.

Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School in Richmond also updated its admission policy in 2020, removing one of two application tests. The percentage of Black students admitted to Maggie Walker increased from 4% to 8% after the test was removed. No lawsuits have been filed against that policy.

Connor Scribner is a former VPM News assistant editor.