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Morning news brief

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have some preliminary answers to how a Supreme Court ruling affects university admissions.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Yeah, the court majority rejected elaborate policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina. Both elite schools considered race as one factor to decide on which students get in. The ruling says that violates the constitutional requirement for equal treatment regardless of race. Dissenters said the Constitution promises equality, and it was all right for schools to act on that promise.

INSKEEP: NPR's Elissa Nadworny is here. Good morning.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: First, how did the court explain its ruling?

NADWORNY: So Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion, and he said, however well-intentioned the policies at UNC and Harvard were, they failed to use race within the narrow confines of what the Constitution allows. He did leave the door open, writing that schools could consider an application's discussion of how race affected his or her life. I talked about this with Sarah Parshall Perry. She's a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation who was encouraged by the decision.

SARAH PARSHALL PERRY: The court is clear that universities can consider an applicant's discussion of how race affected their individual lives, but we will no longer see individuals checking a box or being subjected to a college or university's quota system.

NADWORNY: So universities don't really have quotas, but Harvard was using a point system to rate students' identities.

INSKEEP: And this is the thing the court says is wrong. Now, if you had an individual experience with race that you want to talk about in your application, you can do that, but you no longer get credit, the court says, for being a member of a group, so called. What are colleges and admissions professionals saying about all that?

NADWORNY: So even though it was expected, it's a major blow to colleges who are committed to diverse campuses. I talked with Angel Perez. He leads the National Association of College Admission Counseling.

ANGEL PEREZ: Today's decision is going to make it a lot harder and a lot more expensive for institutions of higher education and admission officers to bring in a diverse class.

NADWORNY: He points to the University of California. There it took decades, a complete admissions redesign and hundreds of millions of dollars to try and get those diversity numbers back up after the state's affirmative action ban in the late 1990s. He says most states, most colleges don't have that kind of money or political will.

INSKEEP: This is an interesting point because you're telling me that universities in response to this are not saying we're abandoning diversity. They're saying we're going to try to get diversity in some other way. Does this affect every university?

NADWORNY: Well, it is a nationwide ruling, but most schools are open access - think community college, lots of, you know, public four-year schools. Only a small portion, about 200, have highly selective admissions where this decision would apply. But what happens at elite institutions matters. They're gatekeepers to power in America. Take the Supreme Court justices. Currently, 8 of the 9 attended law school at Harvard or Yale.

INSKEEP: What does this mean for high school students who might be applying to college soon?

NADWORNY: I spoke with Sanjay Mitchell. He's a longtime high school counselor in Washington, D.C. He's been working with the students already to kind of reframe their essays, to touch on their lived experience. But he says this whole thing has caused a lot of anxiety.

SANJAY MITCHELL: So students are asking the questions like, well, does my identity not matter anymore? Does that now mean that we are only going to be relegated to HBCUs? And those are the thoughtful responses, Elissa. The other kind of responses that we're hearing is, well, I guess they really don't want us to go to college, you know? Well, they always say that college isn't for everyone.

INSKEEP: HBCUs - historically Black colleges and universities. What can colleges do within the law now to improve diversity?

NADWORNY: Well, we're going to see a focus on essays, increased recruitment, expanded financial aid. But over and over again, research shows, you know, nothing is as effective as creating a racially diverse student body as considering race.

INSKEEP: NPR's Elissa Nadworny, thanks so much.

NADWORNY: You bet.

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INSKEEP: Now let's talk about college tuition because as soon as today, the Supreme Court will release one of its most anticipated opinions.

FADEL: One that has tens of millions of Americans on the edge of their seat - the court will decide whether to preserve or prohibit President Biden's plan to erase billions of dollars in federal student loan debt.

INSKEEP: NPR's Cory Turner has been covering that move by the Biden administration. Good morning.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What are the arguments here?

TURNER: Yeah, so the court is basically grappling with two big legal questions here. First, is President Biden's debt plan legal? Is it constitutional? The administration argues, obviously, yes, because of a law known as the Heroes Act. That passed not that long after the attacks of 9/11, and it gave the education secretary really broad power to modify or waive student loan rules - those are the verbs in the law - in times of emergency. The administration argues emergency like the pandemic. Now, the plan's conservative opponents argue erasing some $400 billion in student loans isn't just modifying the rules. Here's the Republican chairwoman of the House Education Committee, Virginia Foxx, several weeks ago.

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VIRGINIA FOXX: What the president has done is take on the role of Congress to appropriate money from the taxpayers to people who willingly took on a debt. I think what he has done is totally illegal.

TURNER: And Foxx says if Congress really wanted to erase all these student loans, it would have done so itself. It is worth knowing - noting, Steve, that during oral arguments, the court's conservative majority seemed to agree.

INSKEEP: OK, seemed to agree on that point, but what was the other point that could decide this case?

TURNER: Yeah. So the other question they're trying to answer may actually be the Biden administration's only hope here, and that is, can any of these plaintiffs prove they'd be hurt by debt cancellation because, you see, the court won't even rule on a case if the plaintiffs don't have what's called standing to sue in the first place? So in one of these cases, it was brought by a pair of borrowers, one of whom doesn't qualify for relief because of the kind of loans they have. The other qualifies for $10,000 in cancellation but wants to qualify for more. The other case that was brought by six conservative states, including Nebraska, and they've tried to show harm by saying a major student loan servicing company that borrowers know as MOHELA would lose business, and that would hurt the state it's in, Missouri.

INSKEEP: OK. That doesn't sound like they absolutely have found someone who is directly harmed.

TURNER: No, because the company, MOHELA, isn't even a plaintiff in the case. Here's Persis Yu. She's at the Student Borrower Protection Center.

PERSIS YU: There really is no way that any of these plaintiffs have standing under existing case law. This is the reason why we saw the Republican-appointed district court-level judge throw out the case in Nebraska v. Biden.

TURNER: What's not clear, Steve, is how the court's conservative majority is going to weigh these standing issues against their clear concerns about the plan's legality.

INSKEEP: How many people and how much money would be affected here?

TURNER: Yeah, I mean, as many as 43 million people could be affected here. As many as 20 million could have their debts erased. Then again, critics of the plan say, look, this could cost $400 billion, and it would privilege Americans who went to college over those who couldn't or chose not to.

INSKEEP: NPR education correspondent Cory Turner, thanks as always.

TURNER: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: We have a Hollywood cliffhanger next. Actors have a strike deadline tonight.

FADEL: Their union, known by the acronym SAG-AFTRA, has been negotiating with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers for several weeks. But if they don't reach an agreement or extend the deadline, the actors would walk out, as the writers already did.

INSKEEP: NPR's Mandalit del Barco is covering this. Hey there.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: So how close are they to a deal?

DEL BARCO: Well, you know, early this week, things seem to be looking good. SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher - you may remember her from the TV show "The Nanny" - well, she sent a video message about the negotiations to members.

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FRAN DRESCHER: Well, frankly, it's very confidential what's going on in there. But I just want to assure you that we are having an extremely productive negotiations that are laser-focused on all of the crucial issues you told us are most important to you. And we're standing strong, and we're going to achieve a seminal deal.

INSKEEP: Love that familiar voice, but please go on.

DEL BARCO: Yeah. Yeah, well, you know, some of those crucial issues she was talking about include getting better residuals from hit shows on the streaming platforms. And also a big concern for the actors is getting protected from the use of artificial intelligence. Actors are afraid their images and their work is going to be replaced by AI.

INSKEEP: A mirror of one of the concerns in the writers strike.

DEL BARCO: Exactly.

INSKEEP: But if they seemed close on these things, why might they still strike?

DEL BARCO: Well, apparently many of the members were worried that the negotiators weren't standing firm enough. You know, nearly all of them, 98%, had already voted to authorize a strike if needed. And after Fran Drescher's message went out, actors sent them a letter urging them not to settle for a deal and saying they were ready to strike. That was signed by 300 members, including A-listers Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence and Quinta Brunson. And by the following day, the list grew to more than a thousand performers, including Amy Poehler, Charlize Theron, Joaquin Phoenix, Jamie Lee Curtis and Pedro Pascal. And this is the most curious part, though, Steve. Fran Drescher also signed the letter that was addressed to herself and other SAG-AFTRA leaders. You know, so we'll have to see if they call a strike. And, you know, for full transparency, I do have to say that many of us here at NPR are members of SAG-AFTRA, but we're not covered under the TV/theatrical contract, so we would not be expected to go on strike if one is called.

INSKEEP: Nevertheless, if the actors go on strike, they would join the writers on strike. What's that been like in recent days?

DEL BARCO: Yeah, well, you know, I've gone to so many of the picket lines these past two months, and I've met a lot of actors who've been protesting in solidarity with the writers, some of them famous, some of them background extras. And all of them told me that they're ready to strike. Yesterday I was outside Netflix, where striking writers got a special visit from Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda. Here's what Fonda told the crowd about the studios and the streamers.

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JANE FONDA: They better watch out. If the actors go out with the writers, this industry will be shut down.

DEL BARCO: So I should mention, Steve, that the last time there was a dual strike in Hollywood, it was 1960. The Screen Actors Guild hadn't yet merged with AFTRA, and that was led by then-actor Ronald Reagan long before he was president. And the actors joined with the writers to demand they get paid residuals if movies were played on TV. Now they're asking for residuals from the streamers.

INSKEEP: OK, some things change but stay the same. Mandalit, thanks so much.

DEL BARCO: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Mandalit del Barco, our culture correspondent in Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.