UNC Can Continue Using Race Among Admission Criteria, Federal Judge Rules

UNC has not used race in a discriminatory way in deciding admissions and may continue considering it as a factor, a federal judge ruled Monday in a lawsuit filed almost seven years ago.

“UNC has met its burden of demonstrating with clarity that its undergraduate admissions program withstands strict scrutiny and is therefore constitutionally permissible,” U.S. District Judge Loretta C. Biggs of the Middle District of North Carolina wrote in her ruling.

Biggs said that the University had demonstrated that “it has a compelling and substantial interest in pursuing and attaining the educational benefits of diversity and has offered a reasoned decision for doing so, entitling its decision to judicial deference.”

UNC also had demonstrated that “ to accomplish its interest it is necessary that the University admit and enroll a diverse student body to include racial diversity,” Biggs wrote, and that “the University engages in a highly individualized, holistic admissions program that is narrowly tailored in that it considers race flexibly as only a ‘plus factor’ among many factors for each and every applicant and race is not a defining feature in any of its admissions decisions.”

Biggs wrote that “the University has conducted and continues to conduct good faith serious consideration of race neutral strategies and has not found any alternatives that would promote its compelling interest about as well and at tolerable administrative expense as its current admissions program.”

The University welcomed the decision and, as it has throughout the case, emphasized its “holistic” admissions policy.

“This decision makes clear the University’s holistic admissions approach is lawful,” Beth Keith, associate vice chancellor in the Office of University Communications, said in an emailed statement. “We evaluate each student in a deliberate and thoughtful way, appreciating individual strengths, talents and contributions to a vibrant campus community where students from all backgrounds can excel and thrive.”

Biggs’ ruling stemmed from a trial before her in Winston-Salem in November 2020. An advocacy group that wants to end consideration of race in college admissions filed suit against UNC in November 2014, claiming UNC considers race in admissions more heavily than some other factors, creating a disadvantage for people who are white and Asian American.

Students for Fair Admissions had received data from the University including 2,500 individual applicant files, eight years of aggregate admissions data and six years of individual admissions data.

UNC stated at the time the suit was filed that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights had reviewed and cleared its admissions policies and procedures.

Conservative legal strategist Edward Blum, president of Students for Fair Admissions, told The Washington Post the group would appeal Biggs’ ruling to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court.

He told the Post that his group is “disappointed that the court has upheld UNC’s discriminatory admissions policies. We believe that the documents, emails, data analysis and depositions SFFA presented at trial compellingly revealed UNC’s systematic discrimination against non-minority applicants.”

The group also was behind a lawsuit that targeted admissions policies at the University of Texas at Austin. In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court in a 4-3 ruling upheld that school’s race-conscious admissions policy — essentially affirming consideration of race as one factor in admissions.

For the class of 2025 that entered UNC this fall, 65% of students identified as white, 21% as Asian or Asian American, 12% as Black or African American, 10% as Hispanic, Latino or Latina, and 2% as American Indian or Alaska Native. (Students could report more than one category.)

According to UNC System enrollment statistics, the overall student population of undergraduate and graduate students at UNC is made up of 22.7% underrepresented minorities — 8.7% Black or African American, 8.7% Hispanic or Latino, 4.9% reporting two or more races, and 0.4% American Indian or Alaska Native — up from 18.6% in fall 2012. Races characterized as not underrepresented accounted for 77.4% of students, including 57.1% white and 11.3% Asian, down from 81.4% in 2012.

While Biggs ruled in the University’s favor and welcomed its efforts toward diversity, she weighed in with some criticism of the results so far.

“While the University’s recognition and pursuit of student body diversity and the educational goals that flow from it are not only constitutionally permissible, but welcomed, the University is far from creating the diverse environment described in its Mission Statement and other foundational documents submitted into evidence in this case,” Biggs wrote. “Admittedly, the efforts that the University has undertaken in recent years related to creating a diverse student body demonstrate a marked contrast to the discriminatory and obstructionist policies that defined the University’s approach to race for the vast majority of its existence.

“Nevertheless, nearly seventy years after the first black students were admitted to UNC, the minority students at the University still report being confronted with racial epithets, as well as feeling isolated, ostracized, stereotyped and viewed as tokens in a number of University spaces,” she wrote. “In addition, the evidence shows that, as a whole, 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.

“Ensuring that our public institutions of higher learning are open and available to all segments of our citizenry is not a gift to be sparingly given to only select populations, but rather is an institutional obligation to be broadly and equitably administered. While no student can or should be admitted to this University, or any other, based solely on race, because race is so interwoven in every aspect of the lived experience of minority students, to ignore it, reduce its importance and measure it only by statistical models as SFFA has done, misses important context to include obscuring racial barriers and obstacles that have been faced, overcome and are yet to be overcome.”

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