Applicants write about race in their college essays despite end of race-conscious admissions

When the Supreme Court ruled this summer that race-conscious admissions practices are unconstitutional, Chief Justice John G. Roberts clarified that colleges were not, however, forbidden from considering an applicant’s discussion of race, “so long as that discussion is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability that the particular applicant can contribute to the university.”

Whereas an applicant’s race/ethnicity—typically available through students’ responses to demographic questionnaires—may no longer be provided to college admissions officers, that information may still be addressed in other application materials, including students’ activities, teacher recommendations, or essays. With that caveat in mind, some school counselors and institutions are encouraging applicants to express that identity and its influence in their college essays, The Washington Post reports.

Related: The end of race-conscious admissions leaves more questions than answers >

Writing about race within the law

To support their pursuit of a diverse student body, some colleges are providing essay prompts that call on students to talk about their identities, how they might add to the diversity of college campuses, and the role of difference and diversity in their lives.

Lee Coffin, Dartmouth’s dean of admissions and financial aid, told the Post that this does not mean that colleges and universities will suddenly place more weight on applicant essays. Rather, “the door remains open to holistic review, and to the storytelling of identity when it’s part of a student’s lived experience,” he said.

“As a practical matter, one can’t imagine an alternative in which colleges were somehow required to black out any discussion of race,” said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a non-resident scholar at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, according to the Post. However, he continued, to avoid further litigation by groups that oppose affirmative action, it will be important for colleges to consider racial discrimination as they would other experiences of hardship, including poverty.

Related: End of affirmative action not an excuse to end diversity efforts, Biden Administration says >

Some student counselors, meanwhile, say they are advising applicants to write about race and ethnicity only if it is an authentic part of their identities and demonstrates their unique qualities. Scott Albert Johnson, a college admission counselor in Jackson, Mississippi, tells the Post, “I would never advise a student to discuss race or any other aspect of their experience in a way that feels inauthentic or is designed to outsmart the process.”

One piece of a much bigger puzzle

Colleges also are looking well beyond application essays in their efforts to sustain and grow campus diversity. In October, the Department of Education released a report calling on states, education advocates, and postsecondary institutions to consider a series of actions—such as increasing financial aid for low-income students and recruiting applicants from historically underserved communities—that would build diverse college student populations.

“Colleges and universities may have lost a vital tool for creating vibrant, diverse campus communities, but this report makes clear that they need not—and must not—lose their commitment to equal opportunity and student body diversity,” Miguel Cardona, United States Secretary of Education, said in the report. “Our country’s future depends on it.”

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