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Ohio colleges grapple with US Supreme Court's decision striking down affirmative action

Mark Sherman

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 Thursday that race-based admissions policies are unlawful in a case that examined the nation's oldest private and public universities — Harvard and the University of North Carolina.

Many of Ohio's colleges reportedly don't use affirmative action in college admissions, but The Ohio State University, Bowling Green State University and the University of Cincinnati do. The three universities and many others in the country will have to re-examine their policies to comply with the federal court decision striking down decades of legal precedent upholding the practice which is meant to diversify student bodies.

Ohio State sent an advisory to faculty last week anticipating this ruling. The message said the university is planning potential policy changes and will soon share updates on any changes.

"Right now, we expect any changes to admissions to go into effect immediately and to be forward-looking, without impacting our current students’ place at the university," the advisory read.

OSU has a student population of over 65,000 students across all its campuses, and nearly 26% are students of color.

OSU spokesperson Ben Johnson said the university is reviewing the U.S. Supreme Court decision and evaluating how it will impact the university. He said OSU will make any necessary changes to continue to follow all state and federal laws regarding admissions.

Otterbein University is a private university in Westerville and had never used race-based admissions, per President John Comerford. He told WOSU the ruling should signal to universities they should do more to attract a diverse student body.

"That is by partnering with school districts where, you know, they have great diversity is through using need-based aid, not just merit-based aid. And it is leaning into making sure underrepresented student populations know Otterbein is affordable and accessible," Comerford said.

Comerford said some practices like legacy-based admissions and financial aid focused on merit cut against diversity in schools.

Comerford says Otterbein's policies have helped triple its diverse student population in the last five years from 12% to 35% of the university being students of color. Otterbein has a student population of just under 3,000 students.

"These institutions are fully empowered, I believe, to do things to keep diversity numbers up in their class. But they have to let go of some of the elitism and money-oriented motivations that they seem to have that trump that desire," he said.

Kathleen Sullivan is a constitutional law professor at Ohio University in Athens. Sullivan said she was not surprised at the ruling Thursday. She said the decision cleans affirmative action practices that have been at play dating back to 1978 in the Regents of University of California vs. Bakke case that upheld affirmative action.

"The court prohibited the use of racial quotas in university admissions (in Bakke). But it did recognize that universities have a compelling interest in having diversity in the classroom. And that has been the basis for admissions committees like Harvard to use race as one factor in admissions," Sullivan said. "It's that practice that the court struck down in today's decision.

Sullivan said while colleges can no longer use race in admissions, they can still use any number of other factors including academic performance, extracurricular activities, support of the students, high schools, personal matters, geographic areas, legacy status, recruited athlete status and financial aid eligibility.

But Sullivan said if a student were to write an essay in which they reflected on how race has affected their life experience either positively or negatively, the admissions committee may recognize race that way. She said in this scenario, race has mattered in the individual student's experience.

"So, ironically, this decision may encourage applicants to talk more about their race than perhaps they would have in the past," she said.

Ohio University does not use race-based admissions practices and has had much different outcomes than Otterbein. Ohio University spokesperson Dan Pittman shared a message university President Hugh Sherman sent to members of the university community.

Sherman said the university's legal team is working closely with academic leaders to analyze the Supreme Court's opinions and fully understand any potential implications across the university.

"Ohio University continues to be committed to ensuring access to higher education for students from all backgrounds and delivering the support and experiences necessary for students to meet their full potential," Sherman said.

Sherman did not announce any policy changes.

Ohio University has over 26,000 students as of this spring. The university reports at least 19% of its students are either international students or are non-white, while 78.7% of the student population is white.

Sullivan did not speculate how admissions policies at her school or others in Ohio may change to try and seek more diverse student populations.

Comerford said moving forward, institutions that believe in diversity in their student bodies need to do the right thing and continue to focus on that in other ways that make it more equitable and accessible for all people.

"No matter how you feel about this case, all is not lost," Comerford said.

George Shillcock is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. He joined the WOSU newsroom in April 2023 following three years as a reporter in Iowa with the USA Today Network.