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The U.S. Affirmative Action Ruling Reverberates Abroad

For my high-school students in Europe, the news from the U.S. usually has the feel of dispatches from a distant, parallel universe. But as this next admissions cycle begins, I’ve been surprised that so many of them have reacted to the U.S. Supreme Court’s July ruling overturning Affirmative Action. Most of them have reacted with dismay.

The ruling announced that U.S. colleges and universities no longer have the moral imperative nor legal justification to consider an applicant’s race when making admissions decisions. Many institutions responded resoundingly to the new restrictions with statements affirming their commitment to inclusiveness and their intent to redouble their efforts to ensure that underrepresented minority students have a place in their communities. Many have pledged to intensify their recruiting in underserved high-schools and neighborhoods, and are considering ways to reform admissions processes to ensure a diverse class. As a workaround, several schools have added essay requirements to their applications to allow students to write about their individual experiences and identities, since they can no longer ask directly about race. But for my students, the impact of the court’s message remains. These are young people who are immersed in a learning environment dedicated to “global citizenship,” and who are drawn to the U.S. by the promise of a diverse and pluralistic educational experience. For them, the court's decision announced that the promise is broken.

There have been efforts to suggest that the ruling’s practical impact has been exaggerated, since the majority of U.S. colleges and universities are not as selective and socially engineered as Harvard and other schools in the Ivy League’s orbit, and admit enough students that an applicant’s race is not a factor in admissions decisions. This may be statistically true, but it ignores the power that these brand-name schools exert on the imaginations of young people – and concerned parents. Among the expatriate communities I work with abroad that send their students to study in the U.S., these institutions play an outsized role as symbols of American values and culture, and supposed leaders in global education.

As a high-school guidance counsellor, I know that I and my colleagues work very hard to help our students consider a broad range of post-secondary school options. We are constantly trying to help them explore opportunities beyond the brand-name schools that inevitably populate their university lists and the evocative destinations of New York, LA, and Boston. But the truth is that most international students, at least at the outset of their research, only know the names and reputations of the U.S. schools that make headlines. The decisions and missteps these schools make reverberate globally and matter hugely.

Studying in the U.S. is already a daunting prospect even for the most motivated international students, but they are enticed by the exceptional educational and life experience promised by a U.S. degree. But at the most storied campuses, and in many minds, that experience is now diminished.


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