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How will colleges react to Trump policy on race in admissions?

The Trump administration is rescinding an Obama-era policy that called for considering race in college admissions. The Departments of Justice and Education announced that they'll advocate "race-neutral" admissions instead. Judy Woodruff learns more from Marcia Coyle of The National Law Journal and Nick Anderson of The Washington Post.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now to the latest guidelines from the Trump administration on race and its role in college admissions.

    It's also the focus of our weekly education segment, Making the Grade.

    The Obama administration had encouraged schools to take a student's race into account to increase diversity. But, under President Trump, the administration is now urging colleges and universities to adopt standards that are blind to the role of race.

    And it comes as Harvard University is facing a lawsuit over its admission practices for allegedly excluding some Asian-American applicants in order to make room for students of other races.

    Nick Anderson covers higher education for The Washington Post. And Marcia Coyle covers the Supreme Court for "The National Law Journal."

    And we welcome both of you to the program.

    Nick Anderson, I'm going to start with you. So, the administration, Trump administration, is saying the Obama administration went too far. They are now rescinding seven what are so-called policy guidances that were enacted previously. What does that mean?

  • Nick Anderson:

    Well, what it means is that the federal government's pronouncements on the Supreme Court's pronouncements have now changed.

    So, you have to go back to the Supreme Court here. Over a series of rulings over many years, the Supreme Court has grappled with race in admissions and race in schools. And then, after they issue a ruling, from time to time, the federal government will sift through that and try to advise school systems and colleges on what it means for them.

    So the Obama administration did that over a period of years from 2011 to 2016, issued some statements. And, today, the Trump administration said, basically, we're getting rid of those statements, they're not operable anymore.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Nick Anderson, what does that mean for these schools?

  • Nick Anderson:

    Well, now, that's interesting.

    If you're a college and you see an incoming change of administration from Obama to Trump, you probably already knew that there was a change afoot in the way the federal government viewed these things.

    But we haven't had a Supreme Court ruling on this for a couple of years now. So the folks I have talked to in higher education today suggest that we're not going to see an immediate effect of colleges rushing to change their policies.

    But this action could give some colleges pause as they consider the issue. It could say to some colleges, hey, wait a minute, you might get challenged on this. Remember — I think you have alluded to this already — there's a court challenge to Harvard's admission policy in federal court right now in Boston.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Nick Anderson:

    So that's — I think this action by the Trump administration adds a dimension to that debate on affirmative action that colleges are going to have to reckon with.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And let's come to — well, you raised several points I want to come back to.

    But, Marcia, let's back up further still…

  • Marcia Coyle:

    OK.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … and look at, what have the courts said, what has the Supreme Court said over time about taking race into consideration?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    OK, the Supreme Court said, in terms of affirmative action, that there are two interests that justify the use of race, one, to remedy the present effects of past discrimination, and, two, to achieve diversity in education, particularly higher education.

    Now, the court said that, when a university uses race, it has to meet the Constitution's toughest review, what we call strict scrutiny. One, it has to show there is that compelling interest, achieve diversity or remedy past discrimination, and it has to be — the use of race has to be narrowly tailored to achieve that interest, it can't go any farther than necessary.

    And, finally, the court has said that it has to show that there are no race-neutral alternatives available. The court also has said quotas are illegal, unconstitutional. If you're going to use race, it has to be one of many factors, part of a holistic review of a student's application.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So what the Obama administration did in interpreting that was leaning in the direction of incorporating race into decisions, and now how the Trump administration is interpreting it is different. They're saying, we don't think race should be taken into consideration as much.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    I haven't seen yet in writing what the Trump administration is going to issue to universities and school systems. But it's obvious that the Obama administration probably would take as broad a view as it could of the Supreme Court's ruling, whereas the Trump administration, being a conservative administration, is going to take a narrower view of what it thinks the Supreme Court said.

    But the Supreme Court has been clear. These decisions have been by narrow majorities. The last ruling was in 2016. It was a 4-3 decision. We all know there are nine justices, but it came when Justice Scalia's seat was still vacant. Justice Kagan had to recuse because she had been involved in that case from Texas when she was in government.

    So it was 4-3, and it was Justice Kennedy who wrote the opinion, and it was really the first time he had upheld an affirmative action program.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, of course, now we're at a moment where Justice Kennedy is leaving. And we're waiting to see who…

  • Marcia Coyle:

    A very fragile majority.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And an important moment, another important moment.

    So, Nick Anderson, just to come back to this question of how are schools to interpret this, you said a minute ago they're likely not to jump and do something immediately, but to take their time and, what, see what more the Trump administration says?

  • Nick Anderson:

    Yes, it's worth pointing out that the Trump administration's language on this today was very restrained.

    They didn't come out and say that they want to end affirmative action. The statements from Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions were fairly limited. They were trying to say that the federal government, in its previous administration, had overstepped slightly or in a significant way in its interpretation of the Supreme Court rulings.

    And they were trying to say that, hey, let's just stay with what the judges have said and ruled. But they didn't then take the next step, which is issue a prescription for what it thinks should happen.

    So, I think colleges and universities and school systems as well, because they're part of this, will probably be looking for further actions and words from the Trump administration on what it actually wants. And, of course, everybody's eyes are on the Supreme Court nomination to come.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    No question.

    And, Marcia, just quickly back to that Harvard case that has been working its way up through the courts, where the challenges that Harvard has bent over backwards to not — that, in other words, it hasn't done enough about race, those of different races beyond those who are Asian-American.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    The charge is that they have discriminated against Asian-Americans in their admissions policy. And it's not just Harvard. There's a lawsuit as well against the University of North Carolina.

    And I think it's important just to — or interesting to note that the man in his organization that brought those two lawsuits is the same one who brought the University of Texas challenge to the Supreme Court in 2016.

    Those two cases are at very early stages. They're in federal district court. There probably will be a trial. They have had months of discovery, and it will take a while before they get to the U.S. Supreme Court.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All of this still…

  • Nick Anderson:

    But it's also worth pointing out, if I can jump in here, that the Harvard case is likely to draw significant publicity because it's Harvard, and also just to note that Harvard strongly denies these allegations.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Nick Anderson, Marcia Coyle, we thank you both.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Pleasure, Judy.

  • Nick Anderson:

    Thank you.

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