THE U.S. SUPREME COURT on Thursday struck down affirmative action policies at colleges, ruling that race-conscious admissions policies at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina are unlawful.

“The student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual — not on the basis of race,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion. “Many universities have for too long done just the opposite. And in doing so, they have concluded, wrongly, that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned but the color of their skin.”

The court’s decision will force colleges across the country to change their admission policies, including private universities in California that are free to consider race in admissions.

The state’s public universities are already banned from considering race in admissions because of a 1996 ballot measure. University of California officials previously warned the court that, without affirmative action, its nine undergraduate campuses have been unable to enroll a student body that is sufficiently racially diverse.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom condemned the court’s ruling in a statement Thursday, saying the court’s conservative majority changed the law “just because they now have the votes to do so, without any care for the costs to society and students around the country.”

The court’s vote was 6-3 in the North Carolina case, with the conservative majority ruling against the programs. The vote was 6-2 in the Harvard case, from which Justice Ketanji Jackson Brown recused herself as a former member of Harvard’s board of overseers.

California educators express disappointment

Several of California’s private colleges were frustrated by the court’s ruling.

At Occidental College, a liberal arts college in Los Angeles, President Harry Elam said the decision was “deeply disappointing” while noting that race-conscious admissions policies “have sought to promote diverse and multidimensional learning environments for the benefit of all students.” Carol Folt, the president of the University of Southern California, in a statement, called the ruling “very disappointing” but vowed that the college would maintain its commitment to a campus that is “welcoming, diverse and inclusive.” Santa Clara University President Julie Sullivan said the ruling would limit that college’s “freedom to recognize aspiring and current students as ‘whole’ human beings.”

“We remain committed to creating educational opportunities for all Californians so that they can reach their full potential and so that all California communities can thrive.”

California college leaders in joint statement

Meanwhile, the top leaders of California’s three public higher education segments — UC, the community college system and the 23-campus California State University — expressed disappointment in the court’s decision but said they would “continue to support programs and practices” that intend to ensure their colleges are “reflective of California’s rich and dynamic diversity.” 

“We remain committed to creating educational opportunities for all Californians so that they can reach their full potential and so that all California communities can thrive,” they added. The three officials are Michael Drake, UC’s systemwide president; Jolene Koester, CSU’s interim chancellor; and Sonya Christian, chancellor of the community college system.

That sentiment from California’s higher education leaders was encouraging to Christopher Nellum, the executive director of the Education Trust-West, a nonprofit that advocates for equity in education. Nellum said it’s important that “young people of color know they’re still welcome” at the state’s top universities, despite the court’s ruling.

“I think it’s important that they continue to message in the way that they did today. California needs a diverse, educated populace,” he said.

Entrenching racial segregation

In the North Carolina case, the group Students for Fair Admission argued that the university admissions policies gave preference to Black, Latino and Native American students and discriminated against white and Asian applicants. In the Harvard case, the university was also accused of discriminating against Asian American students.

In a dissenting opinion Thursday, Justice Sonia Sotomayor invoked UC, noting that there was a decline in freshman enrollees immediately after the 1996 ballot measure, especially at the system’s most selective campuses, like Berkeley. She also wrote that the court’s decision would have a “devastating impact” on higher education.

“The majority’s vision of race neutrality will entrench racial segregation in higher education because racial inequality will persist so long as it is ignored,” Sotomayor wrote.

This story originally appeared in EdSource.