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

Higher education stakeholders have begun debating the path ahead after the Supreme Court ruled against affirmative action at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina—and by extension, the race-conscious admissions practices that had been used for decades at selective colleges and universities across the country. 

Related: Georgetown responds to Supreme Court ruling against affirmative action in admissions >

“Expect a shock,” Michael V. Drake, president of the University of California, told The Washington Post, explaining the difficult road ahead for historically white, highly selective colleges and universities committed to enrolling more diverse student populations.

Research has shown that the end of race-conscious admissions will likely lead to a substantial decline in Black and Latine student enrollment. When California state law banned affirmative action in admissions, the share of Black first-year students fell by half at UC-Berkeley. Since then, the system has been working to enroll classes that represent the diversity of the state. “We had to adapt,” Drake told The Post. “We’re still chasing, but we’ve made progress.” 

How will elite colleges shift gears?

Advocates, meanwhile, are floating a variety of admissions approaches that might support colleges’ efforts to build diverse classes, such as actively encouraging admitted students from historically underrepresented groups to enroll, and probing applicants’ essays and recommendations to get a better sense of their background, The Post reports. Some institutions might prioritize test-optional policies, which gained momentum during the COVID-19 pandemic, or consider limiting or eliminating legacy preferences, slots set aside for recruited athletes, early admissions, and merit-based aid.

Institutions also may seek to expand need-based aid, recruit transfer students from community colleges, consider class-conscious admissions, and invest in other programs that attract students from historically underrepresented groups.

None of these choices are simple to implement, and research from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce has shown that some of these options would still leave Black and Latine students significantly underrepresented.

A chilling effect?

Although colleges cannot use race in their consideration of applicants for admission, the Supreme Court majority opinion affirmed that students can address race in their college essays when talking about their lives, abilities, or strengths. Experts have warned, however, that this could ultimately limit how students present themselves to admissions committees at selective institutions.

“Right now, students write about their soccer practice, they write about their grandmother dying,” Shannon R. Gundy, assistant vice president for enrollment management at the University of Maryland, said to The Post. “They don’t write about their trials and tribulations, they don’t write about the challenges that they’ve had to experience, and they don’t know how to and they don’t want to. We’re going to have to educate students in how to do that.”

Related: The enduring, widening disparities that limit Black students’ degree attainment  >

Black and Latine students may also have fewer funding opportunities, as some institutions have already decided to no longer consider race in awarding scholarships as a precaution from litigation, although the Supreme Court did not directly discuss grants or financial aid in its decision, says The Chronicle of Higher Education.

As a result, some experts predict students of color seeking a sense of belonging will be more motivated to apply to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and other Minority-Serving Institutions. This makes investing in these institutions a high priority, Brookings suggests. HBCUs have historically been filling this gap, since they produce 10% of all Black students and almost 20% of all Black graduates while making up just 3% of all U.S. higher education institutions, according to data from the United Negro College Fund.

Related: Black, Latine students remain underrepresented at state flagship universities >

Impact on the workforce

While the end of race-conscious admissions will affect a small share of U.S. colleges and universities, some industries that focus their recruitment efforts disproportionately on elite institutions may find themselves with a less diverse pipeline of applicants and, eventually, leaders, The New York Times reports. Although medical schools have been admitting more diverse classes, only about 5.7% of active physicians are Black, 6.9% are Latine, and 0.3% are American Indian or Alaska Native, according to data from the Association of American Medical Colleges, Higher Ed Dive reports. 

The Supreme Court’s “decision demonstrates a lack of understanding of the critical benefits of racial and ethnic diversity in educational settings and a failure to recognize the urgent need to address health inequities in our country,” AAMC president and CEO David Skorton and chief legal officer Frank Trinity said in a statement.

The decision will also affect diversity in the legal profession. Experts have cited race-conscious admissions as helping diversify law school classes, although data from the American Bar Association show that people of color, who make up 19% of the nation’s lawyers, remain underrepresented in the profession relative to their share of the U.S. population (40%), Reuters reports.

Stepping back: For most students, other barriers loom

Looking at the broader landscape, experts acknowledge that most prospective college students will not be directly affected by the end of race-conscious affirmative action, as most undergraduates do not attend highly selective schools due to academic, financial, and other barriers. 

Fewer than 200 selective universities used race-conscious admissions, and most of the 3,160 two- and four-year institutions in the U.S. accepted at least half of their applicants, enrolling over 14 million undergraduates in the fall of 2021, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. Just 6% of college students attend a school with an acceptance rate of 25% or less. Most Black, Latine, and white students attend universities that accept 75% or more of their applicants, according to The New York Times. For most students, college costs are the most significant barrier to college, having risen more for students from lower-income households than for students from higher-income backgrounds.

Affirmative action never went far enough to create equitable economic and employment for all students, a recent report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce finds. With the end of race-conscious admissions, “the Supreme Court will have ripped the bandage off the wound,” the report said, “leaving us no choice but to tend to the segregation, inequality, and bias in education and broader society that hinder Black/African American and Hispanic/Latino students’ efforts to compete for seats in the entering classes of selective institutions.”

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