The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision on Thursday to gut affirmative action in college admissions has left many Black applicants and their families wondering how to navigate new higher-education terrain.

In his opinion for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said that Harvard University and the University of North Carolina’s race-conscious admissions policies “cannot be reconciled with the guarantees” of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, which promises all citizens “equal protection under the laws.”

He noted, however, that “nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.”

To explore what the court’s ruling might mean for Black applicants and how they can respond, Worldacad spoke with Timothy L. Fields, a senior associate dean at Emory University. He’s also the co-author, along with Shereem Herndon-Brown, of the 2022 book, The Black Family’s Guide to College Admissions: A Conversation About Education, Parenting, and Race.

Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Worldacad: What are your concerns about how the court’s ruling might affect how race is considered in the college admissions process?

My initial concern is that the ruling is based on the premise that things are equal, and it doesn’t give consideration to the history of this country: segregation, racism, and all of those factors that are just part of the Black lived experience in the U.S. But more specifically, as Black students apply to college, it’s a matter of: What other options are available, and also what funding is available?

I went to Morehouse College — a historically Black school — and I loved it. But one thing about these schools is that there really isn’t a lot of financial aid to support families. Many of the schools that meet 100% of applicants’ demonstrated need and have significant opportunities for financial aid are predominantly white institutions that are going to be affected by the court’s ruling, so Black applicants aren’t going to have as much access to that.

In Shereem Herndon-Brown’s and my book, The Black Family’s Guide to College Admissions: A Conversation about Education, Parenting, and Race, we talk about how there are four key pillars to college admission: cost, location, academic major, and academic career.

And cost — the money that’s available for students to access higher education — is going to be an even greater barrier, given the recent ruling. I work at Emory University, and we meet 100% of demonstrated need. Many selective schools have the resources to do that. But those also are some of the same schools applicants won’t be able to access as easily as they could before.

Should we expect predominantly white institutions to become less diverse, especially elite ones?

Yes. I think that California is a good example, when Proposition 209 was implemented and public institutions couldn’t consider race in admissions. They haven’t been able to reach the same levels of diversity.

I think that the same thing is going to happen at a lot of the more elite schools. There’s going to be a dip in diversity. The schools with larger endowments are going to have the resources to help applicants, but there’s definitely going to be a decrease in racial and ethnic diversity.

Would you encourage Black applicants to consider HBCUs even more now?

It’s going to be a necessary consideration. Parents and guardians and counselors tend to speak about the college experience from their vantage points. As we were writing our book, there were Black parents who went to predominantly white institutions who wouldn’t consider historically Black colleges and universities; they didn’t know what the experience was like, or thought that the resources at these schools weren’t up to par. Then there were Black parents who went to historically Black schools who said, “This was the best experience in the world.”

Most people are open and consider all things, but I think that it’s going to be necessary to consider that these schools have always served as the foundation for education in Black communities.


Read more: What an Affirmative Action Ban Could Mean for College Diversity


In our book, we talk about the importance of redefining success. If we want to applaud former President Barack Obama for going to Ivy League institutions, we should applaud Vice President Kamala Harris, who went to Howard University. We should applaud Oprah Winfrey, who went to Tennessee State University. We should applaud Samuel L. Jackson, who went to Morehouse.

I think that families are really going to look at historically Black colleges and universities as options for their children to get an education. Something that’s often said is that you want to go to a place where you’re celebrated, not just tolerated. And this ruling really drives home this idea.

What can Black applicants do to prepare for this new college admissions era?

A key thing to ask is: How are applicants going to tell their story? And so the essay becomes that much more important. The court said that applicants can share their lived experiences, and we’ll see how far they can go in sharing those experiences.

It’s important for any applicant, but especially for Black applicants, to share their lived experiences, to share what makes them unique. I think that what lots of Black applicants do is gravitate toward: “I want to talk about my extracurricular activities.” Or: “I want to talk about what I’m interested in studying.” They don’t really talk about who they are.

Given this decision, it’s going to be very, very important for Black applicants to be able to articulate their lived experiences in their essays for schools that do holistic reviews and have essays as a part of the admission process.

How would you instruct Black applicants to write about race in their essays without sounding contrived or self-lamenting?

We don’t want Black applicants to think that they can talk only about trauma. We don’t want underrepresented students to be immediately associated with: “Oh, I came from this struggling single-family household.” Or with: “I came from an impoverished area.” We encourage them to talk about things they’re involved in that have a connection to the community. If an applicant is involved with Jack and Jill, talk about that experience, for instance. Or they could talk about attending their grandmother or grandfather’s church, and being part of a small congregation. Things they might take for granted but could help them stand out. Those things are really somewhat coded.

Chicago is my primary territory. Many applicants talk about the experience of growing up on the South Side of Chicago. Some of it has to do with violence, sure, but some of it just has to do with culture. If an applicant is talking about their upbringing on the South Side of Chicago, more than likely, that applicant is going to be Black.

Brandon Tensley is Worldacad's national politics reporter.