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

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division jointly released a pair of resources—a letter and corresponding question-and-answer document—providing legal guidance to help U.S. colleges and universities understand the June 29 Supreme Court ruling ending over 40 years of race-conscious affirmative action, Inside Higher Ed reports. The documents advise colleges to ensure their policies comply with the Supreme Court ruling but note that the decision should not be used as an excuse to stop seeking ways to be more inclusive.

“We stand ready to support institutions that recognize that such diversity is core to their commitment to excellence, and that pursue lawful steps to promote diversity and full inclusion,” the letter said. “We also acknowledge that fulfilling this commitment will require sustained action to lift the barriers that keep underserved students, including students of color, from equally accessing the benefits of higher education.”

While the Court said higher education institutions can no longer use race as a factor in deciding whether or not to admit an applicant, the decision also affirmed that colleges can still consider an applicant’s discussion of how race affected their life through experiences of discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise, the guidance said. Any resulting benefit should be tied to a student’s individual characteristics, rather than their race. 

Pursuing diversity despite affirmative action ban

The Supreme Court’s ruling has been the subject of much discussion about not only what it means for college applicants and for predominately white, highly selective institutions but also how it may affect racially or ethnically based scholarships and hiring, The New York Times reports. On the day the decision came down, Missouri’s Attorney General Andrew Bailey ordered state colleges to end minority scholarships that select winners in part due to their racial or ethnic background, according to Inside Higher Ed. Race-conscious financial aid is facing similar challenges in Wisconsin and Kentucky, while attorneys general in 13 states have warned Fortune 100 companies that race-based employment preferences and diversity policies violate the law, according to the Times.

The latest Education and Justice department guidance encourages higher education institutions to still seek ways to create a diverse campus by investing in targeted outreach, recruitment, and bridge or pathways programs that connect colleges to prospective students, including those who might otherwise not know about these schools or see themselves as potential applicants. 

Colleges can also still collect demographic data on applicants, and admissions teams can examine that data, so long as it isn’t used to make admissions decisions. To mitigate that risk, however, this month, the Common App, a universal application used by over 1,000 higher education institutions, introduced a new option that allows admissions officers to conceal applicants’ racial information.

To create more diverse student populations, schools may consider, as many currently do, an applicant’s geographic residence, socioeconomic status, family background, and parental education level, particularly if they are underrepresented in their applicant pool, the guidance says. The expansion of need-based aid can also ensure talented applicants from underserved communities feel welcomed and that they can thrive. Institutions can also strengthen transfer pipelines from community college to selective institutions, partner with school districts in underserved communities, and host summer enrichment programs for students in nearby public schools.

Related: Georgetown programs introduce college to underserved students in grades 6-12 >

The guidance suggests institutions revisit policies that benefit privileged students and act as barriers to higher education for Black, Latine, and low-income students, such as application fees, standardized testing requirements, early decision deadlines, and prerequisite courses like calculus.

In September, the Department of Education will provide a more thorough list of recommendations to help higher education institutions to build diverse campuses, including guidance on measuring adversity (such as an applicant’s financial means or personal experiences of hardship) when selecting among qualified applicants, a press release said. 

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