Affirmative Action Decision Tops Higher Education News in 2023

30 December 2023

As 2023 comes to a close, we take a look back at the top stories and developments in higher education. They include a major high court decision on college admissions, the return of international students at U.S. colleges, the closure of small colleges and study programs, and an Ivy League president stepping down under pressure.

Affirmative Action decision

In late June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that universities could no longer consider the race of a student when making admissions decisions.

FILE - Demonstrators protest outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, DC on June 29, 2023, after the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions, saying race cannot be a factor. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)
FILE - Demonstrators protest outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, DC on June 29, 2023, after the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions, saying race cannot be a factor. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

The announcement effectively ended the idea of Affirmative Action, which had been in place in higher education and the workforce for over 50 years.

In making its decision, the court looked at cases involving Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote: "students must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual – not on the basis of race."

He noted that many who make choices about which students will be permitted to attend universities have given too much importance to the color of a person's skin. "Our constitutional history does not tolerate that choice," he continued.

A group called Students for Fair Admissions brought the case through the U.S. court system over a number of years. The group believed that many Asian and white students were not getting a fair chance to attend the most selective colleges and universities in the U.S. because some places were being held for Black students.

U.S. President Joe Biden spoke in favor of racially diverse colleges and universities after the decision came out.

Many universities said they will change the writing requirements of their applications in order to learn of the life experiences of applicants. The first group of students affected by the new rules will be applying to college in early 2024.

The next step for activists who want to change the way colleges choose students? Legacy admissions. A group based in Boston took legal action against Harvard University, saying it should no longer give preference to students whose parents attended Harvard or give money to the school.

Indian students boost numbers

More and more young people from India are now attending college in the United States. As a result, the number of international students studying in the U.S. has returned to pre-pandemic levels.

While students from China are still the largest group, the number of Chinese international students in the U.S. is dropping. But the 269,000 Indian students made up that difference.

Costas Chassapis works at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. Chassapis told VOA Learning English that many university leaders in the U.S. are "ecstatic" about the increase in Indian students. But he said the increase will not last forever.

The increase is partly due to new rules put in place by Joe Biden's administration. They permit students who complete study programs in STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – to stay in the U.S. for extra work experience.

American students question college

As international students return to the United States, many American young people are expressing concern about the value of a college degree.

The number of American college-age students seeking higher education started falling before the COVID-19 pandemic. Today's young people find that they have work possibilities that pay well even without a college degree. Some say the cost of attending college is simply too high.

West Virginia is the only state in America with a population that is lower today than it was in 1950. The state's public university, West Virginia University (WVU), feels the effects of the population loss. Today, its main campus has about 25,000 students. That number is 10 percent lower than it was in 2015. WVU is facing a $45 million budget deficit.

Last summer, WVU announced plans to cut some study programs. The school will end some language studies, music instruction and writing programs. In addition, 100 educators will likely lose their jobs.

Lisa Di Bartolomeo is one of the language professors concerned about her students. She said: "The best and the brightest students don't see a future for themselves in West Virginia."

But at least WVU remains open. Some small colleges and universities closed or made plans to close in 2023.

One of those schools was Alliance University in New York City. Heather Garcia studied and worked there. She said the university tried to remain open, but its financial problems were too large. She said she is sad to see the school close.

Bryan Alexander is a researcher who looks at the future of higher education. He said small American colleges first try to reduce their costs. When they can no longer cut their costs, they must close. He said many people in higher education are concerned about the number of small schools that have closed in recent years.

"I think, within higher ed, the alarm has already been sounded," Alexander said. "Presidents, Deans, Provosts...this is the stuff that keeps them up at night."

Ivy League president leaves job under pressure

Liz Magill of the University of Pennsylvania stepped down from her job in early December.

Magill, along with Harvard President Claudine Gay and Sally Kornbluth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology appeared in front of Congress on December 5. Lawmakers asked the presidents if they felt calls for violence against Jewish people should be against school rules.

The Republican-led congressional committee chose the three leaders because their schools "have been at the center of the rise in antisemitic protests," a committee spokesperson said in a statement. The protests are related to the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas.

None of the three school leaders directly spoke against calls for violence against Jewish people. Instead, they said some speech, even "deeply hateful speech," is protected by the U.S. Constitution.

On December 9, Magill resigned from her position under pressure from influential donors and alumni.

Gay and Kornbluth received support and criticism. But both were permitted to keep their jobs.

One group of professors at Harvard said colleges and universities should not be influenced by political pressure.

A top legal expert from Harvard, Laurence Tribe, said universities should not be "bullied into micromanaging their policies."

I'm Bryan Lynn.

And I'm Faith Pirlo.

Dan Friedell wrote this story for Learning English with additional reporting from the Associated Press.


Words in This Story

majority –n. more than one half of a group

tolerate –v. to accept, permit or allow

ecstatic –adj. very excited or happy

legacy –n. how someone will be remembered, a person with ties to the past

estimate –v. to make a guess about something based on experience or understanding about a topic

ecstatic –adj. very excited or happy

alumni –n. the people who graduated from a school or university

bully –v. to frighten, hurt, or threaten (a smaller or weaker person) : to act like a bully toward (someone)

micromanage –v. to try to control all parts of something usually in a way that is not wanted