AI, SCOTUS, and Affirmative Action

Colliding Trends: as the Supreme Court changed college admissions, Chief Justice Roberts argued that personal essays will be more important, but are applicants learning to write in the age of ChatGPT?

By Brad Berens

Affirmative Action rally at Harvard. Credit: Majxuh.

When I give sharpest-edge trend keynotes, I often use the phrase “colliding trends” to describe how I approach peering into the future. As a species, we overfocus on head-to-head comparisons and fail to see threats coming from our blind spots.

At first, trends run parallel, so we focus on our direct competitors. “I’m Canon, and I sell a cute little digital camera called the Elph; my competitors are Olympus, Sony, and Kodak” (this was in the late 1990s). When we do this for too long, we dodge urgent, colliding trends questions like, “what happens to the Elph if the cameras inside smartphones get really good?”

Outside of photography enthusiasts, how many people carry an independent digital camera in their pockets these days?

Last week, the Supreme Court issued two decisions against Affirmative Action admissions policies in higher education. One part of The New York Times coverage caught my eye from this colliding trends perspective.

Chief Justice John Rogers wrote:

“Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration or otherwise.”

Still, Roberts warned that the personal essay could not play a stealth role in telegraphing race.

“In other words, the student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual—not on the basis of race.”

To unpack this, Roberts is saying, sure, a student can write about how her or his race formed a unique journey. However, the admissions officers reading the essay cannot tick a diversity box because they found out that the student was non-white.

If this sounds like manure to you, then you’re not alone. In her pointed dissent (page 47 of the opinion), Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote:

This supposed recognition that universities can, in some situations, consider race in application essays is nothing but an attempt to put lipstick on a pig. The Court’s opinion circumscribes universities’ ability to consider race in any form by meticulously gutting respondents’ asserted diversity interests.

I disagree with the Roberts majority opinion morally and philosophically, but there’s also a practical case to be made that smothering diversity is bad for the USA because it makes us less competitive.

Over the past decade or so, study after study (e.g. this one from Harvard Business Review) has demonstrated that businesses with diverse employees outperform monoculture businesses financially, with innovation, and in employee hiring and retention.

Welcoming diverse student bodies into American universities isn’t just morally right because it helps to make up for past discrimination, it’s also strategic because it leads to more effective and profitable businesses competing on a global stage. Why historically pro-business conservatives on the high court don’t see this escapes me.

In a separate New York Times article, Stephanie Saul wrote:

College essays may fundamentally change in tone and tenor—and subject matter.

“Right now, students write about their soccer practice; they write about their grandmother dying,” said Shannon Gundy, an admissions official at the University of Maryland, in a recent presentation sponsored by the American Council on Education.

She added, “They don’t write about their trials and tribulations. They don’t write about the challenges that they’ve had to experience.”

That kind of writing takes a lot of practice.

The Content We Don’t Care About

At the same moment the SCOTUS decisions increase the importance of the personal essay for getting students—particularly diverse students—into college, a fleet of new Generative AI services have arrived on the shores of our laptops to make it easier for people to write and create other content (like slide decks).

ChatGPT is the most famous of these AI writing services, but there’s also Notion, Jasper, Grammarly, and many others, plus AI integration into Microsoft Word (which is vexingly assertive about its flat stylistic preferences) and Google Docs.

The problem is that making it easier for a person to write doesn’t make that person a better writer. It’s the other way around.

These are the colliding trends: higher stakes for college-intending young people to develop a unique and persuasive voice at the same time that algorithms are making it seductively easy to outsource the hard part of writing.

Even the fastest writers struggle to coax, massage, or beat an inert pile of words into something coherent and persuasive. (For example, I spent more time than you’d predict about whether or not to add the word “horse” in front of “manure” a few paragraphs ago, and I’ll still be fretting about “the shores of our laptops” long after you’ve forgotten that you ever read this piece.)

Welcoming diverse student bodies into American universities isn’t just morally right because it helps to make up for past discrimination, it’s also strategic because it leads to more effective and profitable businesses competing on a global stage. Why historically pro-business conservatives on the high court don’t see this escapes me.

I have a working hypothesis that people use ChatGPT and its ilk to create the content that they don’t care about. The student who didn’t enjoy (or didn’t finish reading) Brave New World might lean on AI to write an essay. The time-pressed assistant whose boss just told him to pull together slides for a presentation happening today might send a mental thank you note to Satya Nadella for putting ChatGPT into Power Point.

If the prospect of writing that email, that post, that article, that text, bums you out, then ChatGPT might sound like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir promising salvation. The bigger the bummer, the bigger the temptation.

We may now have entered a topsy-turvy world where people use AI to create content they don’t care about; then they send that content to people who don’t want to read it, who then use AI to summarize the important bits.

We already spend our days fighting yummy invitations to take the downhill road. Why read a book when TikTok beckons? Why eat a salad when there’s a salty bag of chips? Why go to the gym when there’s so much streaming video to catch up on? AI writing services are a new way to let our natural tendency to laziness in the short term work against our long term best interests.

Learning to write is like learning a sport: a lot of training happens before the big game. Back in High School, my sport was fencing, and I got to the national level for one exhilarating Junior Olympics, but that national competition was a few days at the end of years of practice. My son William just competed at the Youth National Championships in rowing, which was one week at the end of five years of early mornings on the water.

After SCOTUS’ decision last week, writing the personal essay is the Super Bowl for college applicants, but will they ever get on the field before kickoff?


Brad Berens is the Center’s strategic advisor and a senior research fellow. He is principal at Big Digital Idea Consulting. You can learn more about Brad at, follow him on Post and/or LinkedIn, and subscribe to his weekly newsletter (only some of his columns are syndicated here).


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July 7, 2023