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Students v. SCOTUS

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JULY 07, 2023

I started my undergraduate career in Brazil.

The college admissions process was much more straightforward —  I took a single test that determined whether I’d get in or not. My GPA and extracurriculars were irrelevant. Affirmative action there was transparent, with a fixed number of seats set aside for Brazilian minorities and Indigenous applicants.

I got into a public university. Tuition was zero Brazilian reais. Had I graduated from there, I would have had no debt whatsoever.

To many, this sounds like a dream: a transparent and meritocratic process that results in no student loans.

Yet six months after matriculating in Brazil, I subjected myself to a painful holistic process and tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt to go to an American university instead.

People are rightfully up in arms about two of the Supreme Court rulings last week related to higher education. One prohibited race-conscious affirmative action, while the other blocked President Joe Biden’s plans for student loan forgiveness.

First, I must share the obvious: Being a student in the United States is preferable to pretty much any other alternative in the world, and the U.S. has the highest international student population by far. The opaque admissions process and student loans are the price we pay for the “best” postsecondary education system in the world.

Second, people misunderstand the role the courts play in American life, including student life.

The federal court system is not a directly democratic institution. The courts do not exist to enforce what is popular according to public opinion. Quite the contrary, the Supreme Court must often stare down intimidating majorities when deciding its most notable cases, such as desegregating schools and legalizing same-sex marriage. Neither decision enjoyed majority support at the time it was released.

I had mixed feelings on the recent opinions myself.

While I agree with the court that the executive branch cannot legally make a decision on student loan debt, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want $10,000 in loan forgiveness. 

I also think affirmative action was fine the way it was. I don’t like the fixed quota system, as that has clearly failed Brazilian schools. But I also think schools need some tools to account for the upsetting — and often racial — inequality in our country.

However, I understand that the court is a nonpartisan, unelected branch of government that exists to interpret the law by adjudicating cases — by design. Therefore, I accept these rulings.

Too many excitable critics on the left, right and center swing back and forth between their opinions on the nature of the court. One week they’re the honorable justices, and by the next week, they’re unelected attorneys. Some days they are “Federalist Society hacks,” while other days they are the most diverse court in history. Depending on the day, they are activists, wise elders, misogynists, super legislators, religious zealots and legal superstars. We’ve heard it all.

If you listen closely, the cynics are taking turns sharing a common grievance: The court ruled in a way I personally and subjectively disagreed with.

But even as a relatively nondemocratic institution, the court has been vindicated many times before. This is true especially in the realm of education — Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka is the most obvious example.

The first relevant case about affirmative action, though, came out of our very own UC system. University of California v. Bakke was a 1977 ruling that allowed for race-conscious admissions but prohibited fixed quotas. In 1996, California’s Proposition 209 prohibiting race and sex consideration in public employment and education passed by a margin of 55 to 45. This was affirmed in the 2020 election when Proposition 16, which would’ve repealed Proposition 209, failed to pass by a margin of 57 to 42.

The Supreme Court maintained the individualist framework from Bakke in two 2003 Michigan cases: Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger. The same thing happened in Michigan as in California: A ballot referendum — Proposition 2 — passed, and Affirmative Action was outlawed by a vote of 58 to 42.

The American people have erred on the side of individuality and meritocracy when left to a vote, even as it has culturally embraced racial and cultural diversity.

To be fair to schools, admissions is hard to get right because it lies at the intersection of academia, law, equality, equity, meritocracy, justice and personal identity.

It’s inevitable that some current practices, such as legacy admissions and student-athletes, become controversial. This is the same system responsible for the infuriating Varsity Blues scandal, where rich parents bought their children’s ways into “elite” schools.

Admissions affects us all. I experienced two different systems: the American system that prioritizes holistic individualism and the Brazilian system that focuses on objective, quantitative measurements. Neither is necessarily better, though we can always look to change things.

And now we have an answer on what the rules are. It’s an opportunity to go back to the drawing board and work on the issues we care about.

Rafael Arbex-Murut writes the Thursday column about current events. Contact the opinion desk at[email protected] or follow us on Twitter.

JULY 07, 2023