SCOTUS decisions on race-based admissions, student loans spark backlash


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The United States Supreme Court building in Washington D.C.

By Shannon Garrido and Camilo Fonseca

In successive rulings last week, the Supreme Court ruled against affirmative action and a plan that would have forgiven federal student loans, drawing sharp backlash from students and academics at Emerson and across the country.

On Thursday, the high court rejected arguments put forth by Harvard University, among others, that race-based admissions are needed to reverse centuries of discrimination against certain marginalized groups in higher education.

On Friday, the court announced that it would throw out the Biden administration’s plan to forgive $430 billion in federal student loans, which are held by millions of Americans—thousands of Emerson graduates among them. Both 6-3 decisions split the court along ideological lines.

Race-based admissions

In the affirmative action case, the conservative majority on the court found that admissions practices that favor students from underrepresented racial groups are unconstitutional. Affirmative action is practiced by Harvard and many other private and public institutions, including Emerson College.

Four members of the federal bench—conservatives John Roberts and Neil Gorsuch, and liberals Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson—are graduates of the Cambridge-based law school. Roberts penned the majority decision, while Jackson filed a dissent.

Jay Bernhardt, Emerson’s newly-installed president, said in a statement that the college was “profoundly disappointed” with the outcome of the case.

“We want our community to be a welcoming place for all those who dream of joining us,” Bernhardt said. “We reaffirm that equity, access, and social justice are core values of Emerson College. We remain committed to recruiting, cultivating and supporting students who reflect our diverse society.”

“We will continue to pursue these goals to the best of our ability within the confines of the law,” he added.

Bernhardt, along with several other presidents of Boston-area universities, signed on to a statement released by Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey that pledged to “continue to break down barriers to higher education” for historically-underrepresented groups.

College administrators are still working to determine how the decision will immediately impact Emerson’s admissions process.

Dylan Young, a representative of Emerson’s student union, said Bernhardt’s response to the decision has been inconsistent with the college’s actions in regards to admissions diversity. 

​​“In classic Emerson style, they had to be very vague and symbolic,” Young said. “I would like to see them in the future work towards a more material-based policy, and actually showing us, ‘This is what we’re doing to counteract this.’” 

Young said that the decision should act as a reminder for both Emerson and the student body of all the work that still needs to be put into creating opportunities for marginalized students. 

Emerson has long been considered a predominantly-white institution, though in recent years the college has worked to change that perception; in the 2022-23 academic year, white students made up 55 percent of the student body, the lowest proportion in recent history.

However, enrollment for other groups remains low. Black students made up six percent of the student body in 2022-23, while American Indians and Pacific Islanders were both enrolled at a mere 0.1 percent.

When compared to neighboring institutions, Emerson’s record on diverse enrollment is mixed. Its demographics are similar to nearby Suffolk University and Northeastern University, while larger institutions like Harvard have higher admissions rates for students of Black (15 percent) and American Indian (three percent) descent.

Federal student loans

The court also rejected a plan that would have partially or completely forgiven the federal student loans of 40 million Americans. The plan, approved by the Department of Education last year, was deemed an overreach of the executive branch’s authority.

Many Emerson graduates report having taken out student loans to fund their education. The college’s tuition has risen considerably since the 1980s—growing at double-digit rates in the past decade. Tuition now sits around $55,000 a year, a far cry from the $35,000 it was in 2013. 

Bernhardt and Emerson College did not release a statement on the subject Friday. In past communications, the college has maintained that tuition increases are responses to “inflationary pressures” and that there exist sufficient financial aid resources for low-income students.

Following every tuition hike, the administration has consistently faced backlash from students; the student union has organized multiple protests in response.

“We as a union don’t necessarily ask for a tuition freeze, because we see that inflation in higher education is higher than any other sector of the economy,” Young said. “We have instead asked that financial aid grants and scholarships be raised along with tuition and inflation.”

Through a post shared on social media, the student union called on its members to march against “judicial tyranny” in a Friday evening rally organized by the Boston chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Amiri Rivera Sillah, a spokesperson for the student union, said that the Supreme Court’s decisions only highlight the importance of the union’s efforts to improve the financial aid and admissions system at Emerson.

“Emerson College is [considered] a very progressive institution,” Rivera said. “But when it comes to students, [that is] a giant group of people with no representation.”