Justice Dept drops Yale lawsuit, but challenges to race in admissions unlikely to stop

Dive Brief:

  • The U.S. Department of Justice on Wednesday dropped its lawsuit against Yale University over its use of race-conscious admissions policies.
  • The Trump administration brought the complaint in October, alleging that the university’s admissions process discriminates against Asian and White applicants.
  • Colleges faced close scrutiny of such practices during the Trump administration and as part of longer-running efforts to end consideration of race in admissions decisions.

Dive Insight:

Yale officials pushed back on the Justice Department’s assertions that the university’s use of race in admissions was “oversized, standardless, (and) intentional.”

In a statement this fall, the university’s president emphasized the need to consider factors beyond GPA and test scores to vet applicants and included race and ethnicity “as one element in a multi-stage examination of the entire application file.”

Selective institutions’ race-conscious admissions policies were in the crosshairs of the Trump administration’s Justice Department. Its actions reinforced a long-running effort to ban such practices.

In August, the department threatened to sue Yale if the university did not agree to forgo race or national origin as factors in its 2020-21 admissions decisions. The move stemmed from a probe the Justice and Education departments launched in 2018 into the university’s admissions processes. 

The department also withdrew a notice stating that Yale’s undergraduate admissions practices violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, citing in part an appeals court decision in November in favor of Harvard University’s race-conscious admissions policies. The investigation into Yale is ongoing, however, a Justice Department spokesperson told Higher Ed Dive in an email Wednesday.

The Justice Department also threw its weight behind a group of Asian-American students who sued Harvard University in 2018 over its use of race in admissions. The former administration rescinded Obama-era guidance that supported colleges’ use of such policies.

Race-conscious admissions remain under pressure, however. The anti-affirmative action interest group leading the lawsuit against Harvard is also taking the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Texas at Austin to court. That group, Students for Fair Admissions, requested to intervene in the Justice Department’s lawsuit against Yale, but its motion was denied. SFFA said in a statement emailed to Higher Ed Dive on Wednesday that it intends to file a lawsuit against Yale “in the coming days.”

Meanwhile, a federal appeals court in November backed Harvard’s use of race in admissions decisions, affirming a lower court’s decision. The head of SFFA said he was hopeful the Supreme Court would take up the case.

Race-conscious admissions have narrowly survived several challenges at the high court, but observers have noted that the bench’s new conservative majority increases the odds it would strike down the policies.

A Yale spokesperson told Higher Ed Dive in an email Wednesday that the university is “gratified” the department dropped the lawsuit. The department “precipitously halted” its review of Yale’s policies in favor of litigation last fall, the spokesperson said, adding that the university “welcomes the opportunity to resume sharing information because we are confident that our process complies fully with decades of Supreme Court decisions.”

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