U.S. Supreme Court Ruling on Affirmative Action in Higher Education

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In Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. (“SFFA”) v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, the Supreme Court ruled that race-based affirmative action programs at the University of North Carolina (UNC) and Harvard violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, respectively.

This decision could have significant implications for philanthropy. While focused on higher education, the underlying principles in SFFA can apply more broadly—including to other entities and programs that receive federal funding under Title VI, employment discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and interference with making and enforcing contracts under 42 U.S.C. § 1981. Indeed, SFFA regularly cites cases from outside the context of higher education, and courts have similarly relied on higher-education cases elsewhere. One federal court has already extended the reasoning in SFFA to government contracting.

In many ways, higher education had long been a notable exception to the otherwise stringent prohibitions in the Fourteenth Amendment and Title VI against racial discrimination. SFFA largely foreclosed that special treatment and clarified that the same standards apply. The Supreme Court’s emphatic rejection of the racial classifications at issue strongly indicates skepticism about similar arguments in other contexts and instead endorses strict adherence to the non-discrimination promises of the U.S. Constitution and civil rights laws.

U.S. Supreme Court Ruling on Affirmative Action in Higher Education

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