Georgetown report: Ending race-conscious admissions would threaten racial, ethnic diversity at selective colleges

Selective colleges and universities will struggle to build classes that reflect the racial and ethnic composition of the population graduating from the nation’s high schools if the Supreme Court declares race-conscious admissions practices unconstitutional, according to Race-Conscious Affirmative Action: What’s Next, a new report from Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW).

The Supreme Court is currently considering two cases that challenge affirmative action policies at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with a ruling expected by the end of June. Pundits predict the conservative-leaning court will ban consideration of race in college admissions, which would affect primarily selective colleges and universities, as most higher education institutions accept the majority of applicants, Higher Ed Dive points out. However, advocates for race-conscious admissions fear that such a change would make students from historically underrepresented groups feel unwelcome in higher education.

Related: Georgetown University leads over 50 Catholic colleges in filing Supreme Court brief supporting affirmative action >

What would happen under different admissions models?

CEW researchers used six different admissions models to fill 290,000 hypothetical slots at 193 selective colleges to evaluate how race-conscious practices and its alternatives would affect racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity.

Four of the models tested alternatives to race-conscious practices, such as admissions that consider class—recommended by those who oppose race-conscious admissions since students from low-socioeconomic status backgrounds are underrepresented at selective colleges across almost all racial/ethnic groups. Two other models examined the impact of expanding rather than prohibiting race-conscious admissions. All six models eliminated preferences for legacy applicants; student athletes; and other groups that may receive an admissions bump for reasons unrelated to academic merit, race/ethnicity, or socioeconomic status.

The CEW found that class-conscious admissions practices could partially recoup, maintain, or even slightly exceed the percentages for Latine and Black students currently enrolled in selective colleges. However, those students would still remain significantly underrepresented compared to their representation in high school graduating classes. Class-conscious admissions practices were also shown to reduce the percentage of Indigenous and Alaska Native/Pacific Islander students. The models that expanded the use of race-conscious admissions practices came the closest to reflecting the racial and ethnic composition of the population graduating from the nation’s high schools.

“Our models make one thing very clear: the most effective way of increasing socioeconomic diversity at selective colleges is to consider race in the admissions process, not to ignore it,” CEW Director and lead author Anthony P. Carnevale said, according to a press release.

Admissions overhaul ahead?

Without race-conscious admissions, maintaining or increasing racial and ethnic diversity at selective colleges would require “a complete overhaul” of the admissions process, the report explains. Those changes would include universal adoption of class-conscious admissions across all selective colleges; extending preferences to applicants from low-socioeconomic backgrounds; removing preferences for legacy applicants, student athletes, and other privileged groups; and recruiting a significantly larger applicant pool that reflects the racial and ethnic composition of the nation’s high school graduates.

These changes seem very unlikely to happen, and giving explicit preference to low-income students might lead to discrimination lawsuits, CEW researchers tell Reuters. Additionally, schools that lack large scholarship endowments might struggle to attract low-income students who need financial assistance to cover college costs.

“When it comes to the goal of equalizing college access and success across advantaged and disadvantaged racial and ethnic groups and across advantaged and disadvantaged socioeconomic groups, there is no good substitute for the joint consideration of both race and socioeconomic status in college admissions,” Zack Mabel, report co-author and research professor at CEW, said in the press release. “Without race-conscious admissions, the role selective colleges play in creating equal opportunity in our society is likely to diminish.”

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