This year is already shaping up to be a momentous one for higher education.
In Congress, both parties have indicated reauthorization of the Higher Education Act is a priority. The U.S. Department of Education is underway with regulatory overhauls on how colleges are accredited and how they must handle sexual harassment. And President Donald Trump has made headlines with his recent executive order linking research funding for universities to free speech.
Change may also be coming through the third branch of government, the courts. Decisions on several current cases could have far-reaching implications for colleges across the U.S., including whether they can consider race in admissions or penalize students for joining single-gender clubs.
We're keeping tabs on several high-profile cases that could have an important impact on institutions beyond those involved:
Harvard University's use of affirmative action
What's at stake: A lawsuit over Harvard University's race-conscious admissions process could end affirmative action in higher ed.
The case: In 2014, the group Students for Fair Admissions filed a lawsuit alleging admissions officers at Harvard University hold Asian-Americans applicants to a higher standard.
There's some evidence to back up the group's claims. While the Asian population in the U.S. is more than twice the size of what is was in the 1990s, the share of Asian freshmen at Harvard has consistently hovered between 16% and 19%, according to The New Yorker. Moreover, an internal Harvard review found its admissions process had "negative effects" on Asian-American applicants.
However, some argue that the architect of the lawsuit, Edward Blum, is merely using Asian-American students to achieve his long-running goal of ending affirmative action in all corners of the U.S.
Blum was also behind a high-profile affirmative action case that wound its way to the Supreme Court. Centered on a white woman named Abigail Fisher, the lawsuit alleged that the University of Texas at Austin unfairly denied her admission to the school because of the color of her skin.
The court ruled against Fisher, saying that race-based admissions policies were critical to cultivating diversity at the college and that UT-Austin was able to prove as much. Should another affirmative action case reach the court, however, some say its conservative majority could tilt the ruling in Blum's favor.
The latest: A three-week trial over the matter wrapped up this past fall. While a ruling is forthcoming, appeals are likely. In the meantime, Students for Fair Admissions is keeping busy with a similar battle over affirmative action at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The Trump administration's "unlawful presence" policy
What's at stake: More than 60 colleges have thrown their support behind a lawsuit against a Trump administration policy that makes it easier to impose reentry bans against international students.
The case: In August, the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services issued a new policy that changed how "unlawful presence" is calculated. Nonimmigrant visa holders now start accruing "unlawful presence" from the moment they incur status violations, which can range from failing to update an address to falling below minimum course loads.
Once they reach 180 days — regardless of whether they are aware of the status change — they can be subject to a multiyear reentry ban to the U.S. For students and scholars, this could hamper their ability to continue their studies or research.
Four institutions — Haverford College, Guilford College, The New School and the Foothill-De Anza Community College District — sued the agencies, arguing the change is detrimental to their international students.
Colleges of all stripes have since signed onto an amicus brief supporting the lawsuit, among them Harvard University, Penn State University and Williams College. They contend the policy creates "significant and destructive uncertainty" for visa programs, which will hamper their ability to recruit top international students.
The latest: The court has issued a restraining order on the policy so it won't apply to two international students who are defendants in the case. Since then, the colleges have filed a motion asking the court to extend the restraining order so it applies to students at all four institutions.
Harvard University's sanctions against single-gender clubs
What's at stake: A lawsuit over single-gender student clubs could have big implications for the future of Greek organizations, which have increasingly come under fire on college campuses.
The case: In 2016, Harvard implemented a policy meant to deter students from joining the exclusively male "final clubs," though it also impacted fraternities, sororities and other single-gender groups. The policy bars members of unrecognized single-gender groups from holding campus leadership positions and receiving some fellowships.
In a statement to the campus community about the policy change, then-Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust described the final clubs, in particular, as "a product of another era, a time when Harvard's student body was all male, culturally homogeneous, and overwhelmingly white and affluent."
The policy spurred a handful of fraternities and sororities to file lawsuits that argue it violates gender-discrimination laws and their right to free association. "Discriminating against someone because that person does not walk, talk, or dress like a stereotypical man or woman is sex stereotyping," one complaint contends. "So is discriminating against a person because he or she chooses to join a single-sex rather than co-ed social club in college, in defiance of stereotypes about how 'modern' men and women should behave."
The latest: Harvard filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that the policy is gender-neutral and therefore does not discriminate on the basis of sex. The groups fired back against that motion in court documents filed Friday.
University of Texas at Austin's nondiscrimination policy
What's at stake: A national student group called Speech First is suing the University of Texas at Austin over its nondiscrimination policy, which it says violates the First Amendment.
The case: The group takes aim at UT Austin's policies prohibiting verbal harassment based on on race, religion, national origin and age, as well as its residence hall rules. Those policies do not allow students to engage in "uncivil behaviors" that could impact the privacy, health or safety of another person.
The lawsuit also argues that the university's Campus Climate Response Team, which is responsible for addressing potential bias incidents, discourages students from speaking their mind out of fear they could offend another student. The university has denied the group's allegations and issued a statement in defense of its policies.
Last year: Speech First filed a similar lawsuit against the University of Michigan, which is now before a federal appeals court.
The latest: The court held a hearing in March to consider Speech First’s request for a preliminary injunction against several of the university's policies.
Louisiana State University's oversight of fraternities
What's at stake: A recent lawsuit over a student's death could have a big impact on how universities are expected to handle complaints of hazing.
The case: The lawsuit is brought by the parents of an 18-year-old Louisiana State University freshman and fraternity pledge who died in 2017 from alcohol poisoning after he was subject to a hazing ritual in which he was forced to drink large amounts.
The parents, who are seeking $25 million in damages, say the university didn't do enough to crack down on fraternities that were hazing, even though the majority had violations in the years leading up to their son's death. Meanwhile, the lawsuit contends, the university "aggressively" pursued allegations of hazing at sororities but acted with "deliberate indifference" to similar allegations at fraternities.
The parents contend the university had more lax oversight of fraternities because of "outdated gender stereotypes about young men," and an approach that "minimizes the hazing of males as 'boys being boys' engaging in masculine rites of passage."
Louisiana State has denied it was "deliberately indifferent" to complaints of hazing in fraternities and that it treats men's groups differently from women's groups, according to CNN.
The latest: In addition to the civil suit, one of the fraternity members accused of being involved in the death has been charged with negligent homicide. He is scheduled to go to trial later this year.