Colleges have considered applicants’ race in admission decisions for decades. Starting next year, that could be curtailed or even illegal, depending on the outcome of cases before the Supreme Court. So college-admissions officials are rushing to figure out what it would mean to enroll a diverse class of students if the law changes.
They say that would mean widening recruiting efforts, looking more closely at applicants’ backgrounds and proactively offering spots to students before they even apply.
As the Supreme Court prepares to rule on two lawsuits challenging how Harvard University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill use race as a factor in whom they admit, it will be looking at whether to overturn decades of precedent allowing some consideration of race. What is permitted has been narrowed over time. Current law allows schools to take into account an applicant’s race in limited ways, but not as a rigid set-aside or quota for minority applicants. Legal scholars say the court could tighten its rules on how exactly schools can consider race—for instance, making institutions better document how they’ve considered race-neutral strategies—uphold the current rules, or ban the consideration of race entirely. The Court is expected to hear the cases during its next term, which begins in October, with a ruling expected by June.
Many colleges say having students from a range of backgrounds enriches the educational experience and helps prepare them for a world in which they’ll interact with people unlike themselves. Past Supreme Court rulings have cited educational benefits derived from diversity. But challengers say that factoring race into the admissions process has led schools to discriminate against white and Asian applicants.
Some schools are looking at whether income could be used as a rough proxy for race. It would be an imperfect approach, given that race doesn’t correlate to income level. Another potential move is rethinking admission preferences for children of alumni, who in many cases are white and wealthy. But that’s a nonstarter for schools skittish about losing donations.
Here are a few of the other admissions approaches schools are looking at.
Expand the Funnel
If the Supreme Court decision bars the consideration of race in admitting applicants, universities might be able to improve how they tap into applicant pools.
“Most of the elite schools are fishing in the same pond,” says Josh Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program. “There’s a series of ponds outside their sightlines they need to be casting their lines into.”
“We need to strategically diversify the funnel in ways that we haven’t done before.”
Schools that are members of the National Association for College Admission Counseling are forging relationships with predominantly Black and Hispanic churches, and with community centers in areas with large minority populations, says the organization’s chief executive, Angel Pérez.
“We need to strategically diversify the funnel in ways that we haven’t done before,” he says.
Schools can also tap a pipeline of community-college transfer students, Mr. Wyner says. University of California, Los Angeles, has made headway there, according to Aspen Institute research, as have Amherst College and Princeton University.
The universities will likely see the best results if they work with local community colleges to lay out exactly what classes students need to take for a smooth transfer process, rather than just declare that they’re willing to consider those students, say researchers and community-group leaders pushing for increased college access for underrepresented minorities.
Get More Context
Schools will need to look beyond high-school grade-point averages and test scores if race-based affirmative action disappears, proponents of student diversity say.
High schools with high Black and Latino enrollment are less likely than others to offer advanced math and science classes like physics and calculus, federal data show. Admissions officers and high-school counselors raise the question: Should only students with access to high-level classes be considered for the most selective colleges? Or also students who make the most of their limited resources?
More than 200 colleges and scholarship organizations already use the College Board’s Landscape tool. Alongside test scores, it provides neighborhood and high-school information such as whether an applicant’s area is suburban or rural and the share of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.
“It’s not a silver bullet,” says Marco Dinovelli, assistant vice chancellor of undergraduate admissions at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. “But I do think it adds some valuable context.”
For instance, he says, if an applicant’s transcript shows two Advanced Placement classes, Landscape lets his team see if the teen’s school only offered two such classes—or if the majority of students took at least four, putting the candidate near the bottom of the pack.
Adding a few other data points–such as the value of owner-occupied homes where the applicant lives and what share of area adults attended college–to figures like income could help schools boost diversity without sacrificing academic qualifications, says Glenn Ellison, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studied how Chicago used race-neutral admissions in its selective exam-entry high schools.
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Take Lessons From Other Playbooks
The nine states that have barred race-based affirmative action at public universities, including California and Texas, offer cues for schools elsewhere—mainly that it could be difficult to maintain racial diversity at the same levels as with the race-based policies.
California voters eliminated race-based affirmative action in 1996, and upheld the decision in 2020. Black and Latino enrollment plummeted in the late 1990s at schools like the University of California, Berkeley, and UCLA.
Today, the student body is diverse but enrollment doesn’t reflect the state’s overall demographics. Last fall the UC system’s undergraduate enrollment was 22% Hispanic and 4.4% Black, while 39% of California’s population was Hispanic and 5.7% Black, according to the 2020 census. Asian students made up 31% of UC enrollment, compared with 15% of the total state population.
The UC system invested tens of millions of dollars in strategies including targeted recruiting at low-income high schools, says Zachary Bleemer, an assistant professor of economics at Yale University who has studied the University of California’s admissions trends.
It also introduced a policy that effectively guaranteed the top 4% of students from any California public school admission to most UC campuses. The aim was to give a boost to students at the top of low-resourced minority-dominated schools, who wouldn’t be an obvious pick compared to the applicant pool at large. When the UC system expanded that policy to the top 9%, it guaranteed spots only at UC Merced, the least selective school in the system. Dr. Bleemer says very few students accepted the offers.
“California is a really dispiriting counterexample,” he says.
University of California leaders supported the 2020 initiative to restore affirmative action in admissions. A school spokesman said the university has a longstanding commitment to enrolling a diverse student body.
In 1997 Texas began guaranteeing the top 10% of its high-school graduates admission to its public universities. (For the University of Texas, Austin, it’s now the top 6%.) Recent research shows the effort hasn’t increased racial diversity in the state’s flagship universities. The approach of taking a certain top percentage of high-school students to boost underrepresented minorities would be more effective in areas where high schools themselves are less diverse, researchers say.
Proactively Offer Spots
Simply sending personalized mailers to let low-income students know they’d qualify for free tuition if they were admitted to a flagship university increased applications and enrollment from those students, according to research led by Susan Dynarski, now an education professor at Harvard University.
Informing prospects before they apply that their qualifications would get them into certain schools could have an impact as well. The Common Application, a single online college application form used by nearly 1,000 colleges and universities, piloted a program with three historically Black colleges in the 2020-21 admission cycle. They notified applicants who met certain criteria, like GPA cutoffs, that they’d be guaranteed a spot at particular schools.
This past year, the group extended the trial to six colleges, including George Mason University and Middle Tennessee State University, and notified 18,000 applicants of automatic matches. Roughly 800 of them submitted full applications to those schools, and Common App researchers say the notification seemed to have a particularly strong effect on the behaviors of Black, Latino, low-income and first-generation college students.
Write to Melissa Korn at firstname.lastname@example.org
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