Teaching Supreme Court Cases: Affirmative Action in Higher Education

This blog and the accompanying resource are part of a Shaped monthly series providing teachers for Grades 6–12 with downloadable U.S. history classroom resources and discussion topics.

Today, we hear a lot about affirmative action in college admissions. In late 2019, a high-profile court case that centered on whether Harvard University's admissions process discriminates against Asian Americans gained national attention, with a federal district court judge ultimately issuing a decision that its process is fair. The plaintiffs are likely to appeal the decision, and it could end up in front of the Supreme Court.

This isn't the first time affirmative action has made national news or gone to the courts. Affirmative action, as defined on the Cornell Law School website, is "a set of procedures designed to eliminate unlawful discrimination among applicants, remedy the results of such prior discrimination, and prevent such discrimination in the future." The term was first used by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, when he signed  "Executive Order No. 10925," which required federal contractors to ensure that applicants were treated equally "without regard to race, color, religion, sex, or national origin."

Affirmative action in higher education gained national attention during the 1978 Supreme Court case University of California Regents v. Bakke. In that case—which centered around admissions practices at the Medical School at the University of California at Davis, and Alan Bakke, a white, male applicant who was rejected twice—the Court ruled that the school could use race as one of several factors in admissions decisions but rejected quotas.

Teach your students about this Supreme Court case and its legacy by having them read the resource below and answer the supplemental questions.

Classroom resource and student questions available for download.

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