The White House has been preparing for months for a potential Supreme Court ruling gutting affirmative action, even as President Joe Biden expressed optimism late last year that the court would uphold consideration of race in college admissions.
Biden on Thursday directed the Department of Education to develop a list of best admissions practices to help colleges and universities maintain their commitment to diversity despite the ruling. Biden administration officials are working to finalize additional actions.
“They should not abandon their commitment to ensure student bodies of diverse backgrounds and experience that reflect all of America,” Biden said of universities on Thursday, reacting to the ruling.
In recent months, White House officials met with a slew of civil rights groups, universities and legal organizations to prepare for Thursday’s ruling, gathering information on how the administration could best handle the fallout and encourage colleges and universities not to abandon their efforts to admit diverse classes.
Officials from the Domestic Policy Council, the Office of Public Engagement and the White House Counsel’s office worked with the Department of Justice and Department of Education to develop contingency plans and potential executive actions, White House officials said.
Within the next 45 days, the Department of Education and Department of Justice will provide colleges and universities with resources to determine what admissions practices are and are not lawful. And as it drafts a report on admissions strategies for increasing diversity without affirmative action, the Department of Education will also convene a summit on educational opportunity that will include student leaders, researchers and university administrators.
But officials have been clear that no step Biden could take would reverse the court’s ruling and the focus on providing non-binding guidance to universities reflects the limits of the president’s power on this issue.
Still, officials inside the administration have been exploring what options exist. Those preparations took on more urgency over the last month as Biden met several times with his team to prepare for the Supreme Court’s ruling and develop a plan that would encourage higher education institutions to continue to work to build diverse classes and consider systemic barriers and inequities that applicants have faced.
Biden has now directed his team to finalize those plans in light of the ruling, the officials said.
During remarks from the White House on Thursday, Biden offered a glimpse of forthcoming guidance for colleges and universities, encouraging them to take into account financial means, geography and adversity an applicant has faced as they decide which students to accept. He also said colleges should factor “grit” and “determination” into admissions decisions.
“We cannot let this decision be the last word,” Biden said. “While the court can render an opinion, it cannot change what America stands for.”
In the decision, the Supreme Court ruled colleges and universities can no longer take race into consideration as a specific basis for granting admission, a landmark ruling overturning long-standing precedent that has benefited Black and Latino students in higher education. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion for the conservative majority, saying the Harvard and University of North Carolina admissions programs violated the Equal Protection Clause because they failed to offer “measurable” objectives to justify the use of race. He said the programs involve racial stereotyping and had no specific end point.
Speaking from the White House, Biden called the decision a “severe disappointment” and said the court “walked away from decades of precedent” in its decision. He also told CNN, “This is not a normal court.”
He later clarified his comments about the high court, saying the bench has “done more to unravel basic rights and basic decisions than any court in recent history.”
“Take a look at how it’s, how it’s ruled on a number of issues that are – have been precedent for 50, 60 years sometimes,” Biden told MSNBC, citing the affirmative action ruling and last year’s move to overturn federal abortion protections. “And that’s what I meant by not normal.”
Biden added that while he does think the conservative majority on the Supreme Court could cause harm to the nation, he doesn’t support expanding the court.
“I think if we start the process of trying to expand the court, we’re going to politicize it maybe forever in a way that is not healthy,” he said.
Months earlier, during a November news conference, Biden rejected the conventional wisdom that the court’s conservative majority was likely going to end race-based affirmative action.
“I’m not prepared to believe that the Supreme Court is going to overrule the pre- – the existing decision. That’s far from certain,” Biden said. “I don’t believe that.”
Biden now faces the prospect of a back-to-back setbacks as the Supreme Court is expected to rule Friday on the constitutionality of Biden’s program to forgive up to $20,000 of student loan debt for certain borrowers.
The administration is also working to finalize contingency plans should that program be overturned.
CNN’s Kaanita Iyer contributed to this report.