UNC-Chapel Hill South Building

The South Building at UNC-Chapel Hill, shown in January 2019, was built in 1814. It houses the chancellor's office and serves as the university's main administrative building.

The big national higher ed story this week was the one involving Harvard University, mostly because the national higher ed media can't get enough of stories involving Harvard and college admissions. When those two particular Venn diagrams, watch out for an eruption of hot takes.

The story was that a federal judge ruled that Harvard's admissions process doesn't discriminate against Asian-Americans. The judge said Harvard wasn't perfect but that it met a strict constitutional standard for considering race and ethnicity.

Once you got past the basic who-what-when-why stories, the analysis pieces I saw generally came to one of two conclusions:

• This case will end up before the U.S. Supreme Court, which, as this Vox.com piece explains, could spell doom for any college or university that uses a race-conscious approach to admissions, or

• Elite colleges like Harvard actually have their thumbs on the scale for rich white applicants. The National Review story calls Harvard's legacy preferences "a national disgrace." ("Legacies" in admissions jargon are students whose relatives attended the school.) The Atlantic, meanwhile, notes that Harvard and other elite schools admit too many students who play preppy sports such as crew, lacrosse and squash. Both stories draw on a new paper co-authored by a Duke University economist that found that from 2009 to 2014 more than 40 percent of accepted white students were legacies, related to donors, athletes or children of Harvard faculty. The paper concludes that Harvard would have rejected three-fourths of these students without these connections.

This is all fascinating stuff if you follow the high-stakes world of elite college admissions. I'm interested because the Harvard case was brought by a one-man group called Students for Fair Admissions, which also sued UNC-Chapel Hill in 2014 at the same time it sued Harvard. Click here to see the SFFA news release, which also links to the original complaint. Here are more SFFA documents, and here is the UNC-CH website devoted to the case.

The News & Observer this week gamely tried to write a What This Might Mean for Carolina piece and came to the same conclusion I did: Who knows? Harvard is private, UNC-CH is public and the facts of both cases are different.

Here's a wrinkle that I find interesting, and it occurred to me after reading this story on the Harvard decision in The Nation:

What the trial showed is that Harvard discriminates against Asian American students in two significant ways. The first is via geography. The initial sorting that Harvard does with its massive applicant pool is to place students into “dockets” based on the geographical region of their high school.

This sort might seem benign, until you remember that Asian Americans (and minorities in general) are not spread evenly throughout the country. Minorities are not even spread evenly throughout a particular state. If you are a high-achieving Asian American student applying out of California, you are competing within your “docket” with a lot of other high-achieving Asian American kids. If you are applying out of Missouri, not so much.

UNC-CH's admissions office has a similar geographical concern. As a state university, UNC-CH must take students from across North Carolina. (This year's freshman class of 4,195 includes students from 97 of 100 N.C. counties.) Indeed, I think you could argue that having a geographically diverse class is a compelling state interest when a big chunk of the university's annual funding comes from a legislature whose members hail from every nook and cranny of the Old North State.

Moreover, if geography is important, it stands to reason that UNC-CH will admit some students with grades and test scores that, while good, aren't so great relative to the group. The latest SAT score report for North Carolina high schools shows huge gaps between high schools. Some schools in the state's biggest cities (and Orange County) are well into the 1,200 range. Some schools in the inner cities and way out in the country are below 1,000 — 90 points south of the state average. If college admissions is solely about grades and test scores, UNC-CH could fill up its freshman class from North Carolina's 10 largest urban areas and say to heck with the rest of the state. But a school once dubbed "the University of the People" takes this label to mean all people throughout North Carolina, not just the ones who live in and around Charlotte and Raleigh and maybe Greensboro.

That said, in the latest court memorandum, the word "geographic" is mentioned only once in 31 pages, and the phrase "strict scrutiny" — the key phrase in the University of Texas admissions case that the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 2013 — appears nine times. I am not a lawyer, but my guess is that the UNC-CH case won't plow new ground on any issues of geographic diversity. Rather, I suspect the Carolina case will be a replay of the Texas one, largely because Edward Blum, the plaintiff in the UNC-CH case, is the same guy who filed (and lost) the case against UT. Stick with what you know, right? 

See you in court at some point. Now that the Harvard case is done, it'll probably be sooner for UNC-CH than later.

Have something to say about this blog post? Email me at john.newsom@greensboro.com. You can also follow me on Twitter at @JohnNewsomNR.

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