ZZ Liang, 20, a junior and Jahan Baker-Wainwright, 19, a sophomore talk about affirmative action at Bates College on Monday. “You can’t separate someone’s background from who they are, so I think it should be considered in admissions,” Liang said. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

A widely expected Supreme Court decision to end affirmative action is raising concerns on Maine college campuses that the state’s predominantly white schools will become even less diverse.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court listened to oral arguments in two affirmative action cases challenging admissions policies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Harvard University. Experts expect the court, based on the conservative supermajority’s line of questioning, to restrict or even eliminate affirmative action, also known as race-conscious admissions.

It won’t be clear how overturning affirmative action would impact U.S. colleges and universities until the Supreme Court rules on the issue, which likely won’t be until the end of the term in June or July. But the impending decision is fueling concerns at Maine’s elite private colleges, including among students at Bates College who worry that the loss of affirmative action would lead to fewer students of color at their school in Lewiston.

Emily Gonzalez, who is Latina, is concerned that absent affirmative action it would be harder to advance diversity at schools like hers and that schools across the country would lose an important tool for giving opportunities to people from marginalized groups and bringing people from different backgrounds together.

“Without affirmative action, I might not be here at Bates,” Gonzalez said. “Other students of color might not be here either.”

Race-based affirmative action allows schools to consider race as one of many factors when reviewing an individual for acceptance. Under affirmative action, race can’t be the sole consideration influencing a school’s admissions decision, but it must be looked at alongside other factors, including academic achievement, extracurricular activities and athletics.


Opponents of affirmative action say racial classifications of any sort are wrong and past discrimination of minorities does not justify discrimination of non-minorities today and that admissions policies should be colorblind and based solely on merit. Supporters say the long history of racial discrimination in the United States makes the policy necessary to ensure diversity in higher education and recognize barriers that have denied students of certain racial groups access to higher education.

The arguments before the Supreme Court focused more on the legal disagreements.


Opponents say the Civil Rights Act, which forbids entities that receive federal funding from discriminating based on race, and the equal protection clause in the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, which prohibits racial discrimination by government entities, make affirmative action illegal at public schools and private schools that receive federal money.

Emily Gonzalez, 21, a sophomore at Bates, said she wouldn’t be at the school in Lewiston without affirmative action. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Proponents argue that considering race among a variety of other factors is legal because each student is being evaluated as an individual and race does not automatically result in acceptance or rejection. Those in favor of keeping affirmative action also point to Supreme Court precedent arguing that student body diversity is beneficial to education for all students. Constitutional rights are allowed to be infringed upon if the court decides that there is a certain level of state interest in doing so.

At Bates, 28% of the 1,790 students enrolled in the liberal arts college are students of color.


Maine’s other elite private schools have similar levels of diversity. At Colby College in Waterville and Bowdoin College in Brunswick, 29% and 33% of the students, respectively, identify as people of color, according to the schools’ websites.

All three schools significantly increased their diversity over the past few decades. For example, in 2001 only 7% of the students at Bates were people of color.

Experts say that if the Supreme Court strikes down affirmative action it would result in fewer students of color attending institutions of higher education, especially the elite colleges and universities that often serve as conduits to opportunities at the highest levels of U.S. government and business.

“Of course the Supreme Court hasn’t ruled yet, but the writing is on the wall,” said Adam Howard, a Colby professor who studies social class in education. “If the court overturns affirmative action it will undoubtedly hinder colleges trying to make their schools more diverse.” Howard said this is likely to be especially true for highly selective schools like Colby, Bates and Bowdoin.


At Colby, which for the class of 2026 admitted 7% of those who applied, many factors go into the admissions process. In addition to academic achievement and race, things like legacy status, standardized test scores, athletic ability, extracurriculars and the need for financial aid are considered. All those things, Howard said, largely benefit affluent, white students because race, social class and privilege are so deeply connected.


“People don’t come to the admissions process on a level playing field,” he said. “If you single out race and remove it from consideration you just give another advantage to white and wealthy students.”

Bates student Kara Neal, who is Black, says it would be disingenuous to ignore race in the admissions process. “If you don’t acknowledge race you don’t acknowledge the historic setbacks that people of color have faced,” said Neal, a 19-year-old sophomore.

Other Bates students said that decreased diversity at the school would negatively impact their educational experience.

Kara Neal, 19, a sophomore at Bates, is a first-generation college student. “If you don’t acknowledge race you don’t acknowledge the historic setbacks that people of color have faced,” Neal said. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Senior Alexi Knight, a white student from Maine, said the diversity on Bates’ campus has provided her with important learning opportunities she didn’t have growing up in South Paris, which is 96 percent white and has no Black people, according to the 2021 Census.

“At Bates there are lots of class offerings on race, class and gender,” Knight said. “It’s not appropriate to have conversations about those issues unless you include people from a lot of different backgrounds. Otherwise it would just be a bunch of upper-class white people with the same experiences perpetuating the same issues rather than learning from people with different experiences.”

Knight, a first-generation college student, doesn’t believe it would be fair to consider one factor – such as being a first-generation student – and not another like race, when both are indicators of someone’s experiences and the challenges they have overcome.


ZZ Liang agreed with Knight. “I believe schools should consider race, even though it wouldn’t help me,” said Liang, who is Chinese American. “You can’t separate someone’s background from who they are, so I think it should be considered in admissions.”


Conservative Supreme Court justices, however, questioned last week whether there are benefits to diversity in education, expressed doubt about how diversity is determined and worried about how schools could use race as a factor in admissions without a clear marker. Conservative justices also suggested that it would be possible to achieve diversity through race-neutral methods like providing financial aid to first-generation and low-income students.

Senior Alexi Knight, 20, a white student from Maine and first-generation college student, said the diversity on Bates’ campus has provided her with important learning opportunities she didn’t have growing up in South Paris. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe

Maine school leaders say they will keep working to build diverse campuses with or without affirmative action, although they did not say exactly how.

“Bates will continue to educate our students with these values in an environment that strives to be equitable, inclusive, and free of discrimination,” Bates President Clayton Spencer  said in a written statement. “We, along with colleges and universities across the country, await the decision in the pending cases, and we will carefully assess the  guidance they provide.”

Bowdoin College President Clayton Rose issues a similar statement last week.

“We will continue to do everything we can within the law to gather our students from a variety of backgrounds who together help to make a Bowdoin education and experience so powerful,” Rose said. “We will never back away from our commitment to build and sustain a truly diverse community where everyone has the opportunity for an equitable experience and an enduring sense of belonging.”

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