Colleges Strive to Enhance Diversity in Admissions Through Alternatives to Racial Criteria

In June 2023, the Supreme Court made a ruling that banned the use of race in college admissions, leading colleges and universities to rethink their strategies for maintaining and increasing diversity among their student bodies. Lauren Foley, a political science professor, explores this topic in her book “On the Basis of Race: How Higher Education Navigates Affirmative Action Policies.” Below, Foley shares her insights on the future of diversity in higher education now that race can no longer be considered in college admissions.

Will racial diversity in higher education be negatively affected?

Yes, the ban on affirmative action in college admissions, as seen in the nationwide case of Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, will likely result in a decrease in admission rates for racial minority students. Research conducted in states with existing affirmative action bans demonstrates this effect. Over the past three decades, courts and ballot initiatives have banned affirmative action on a state-by-state basis. States such as California in 1996, Washington in 1998, Michigan in 2006, Nebraska in 2008, and Arizona in 2010 have implemented such bans. In 1996, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit banned affirmative action across Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana in the case of Hopwood v. Texas.

Regardless of the selectivity of a public university, the enrollment of racial minority students declines if the university is located in a state that has banned affirmative action.

The impact is particularly significant at highly selective flagship universities like the University of California Berkeley, UCLA, and the University of Michigan. These institutions have reported drastic declines in the representation of underrepresented groups, especially among Black, Hispanic, and Native students. Data shows that across the University of California system, underrepresented group enrollments dropped by 12%. At the University of Michigan, Black and Native undergraduate enrollments fell by 44% and 90% respectively after the ban on affirmative action.

Affirmative action allowed universities to target specific populations of applicants and give them focused consideration. Without this tool, universities now struggle to maintain and increase racial diversity with more broadly-based policies.

What insights does your book offer for colleges and universities?

Although universities can no longer practice affirmative action to maintain racial diversity, they are still committed to sustaining diversity. Even in states that had pre-existing affirmative action bans, universities have reiterated their dedication to racial diversity and affirmed their intention to comply with the ban while finding alternative ways to prioritize diversity.

However, affirmative action bans may discourage universities from explicitly mentioning race in their discussions and policies on diversity and inclusion. Even when race is permitted as a factor in admissions, bans on affirmative action influence university administrators to avoid considering race. Research shows that less selective universities have adopted broader statements about diversity and student recruitment that do not explicitly mention race.

How are colleges responding to these challenges?

When colleges rely on race-neutral strategies to increase racial diversity, they do not achieve the same outcomes as race-conscious affirmative action. There are simply no policy tools that are as effective as affirmative action in producing racial diversity at universities.

Nevertheless, universities are now seeking out race-neutral methods to maintain or enhance racial diversity on campus.

One example is the adoption of holistic admissions, which involves considering multiple factors in assessing applicants’ academic achievements. These factors may include socioeconomic adversity, educational disadvantages, and other forms of hardship. Computer software can assist universities in incorporating demographic factors such as the educational backgrounds of parents, the number of students receiving free or reduced lunch in an applicant’s school, and the family’s socioeconomic status into the admissions review process.

Other states have implemented legislative solutions, such as guaranteeing enrollment at state universities for high school seniors graduating in the top percentiles of their class.

In response to the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard ruling, some colleges and universities have adopted creative approaches to comply with the Supreme Court decision. For example, Sarah Lawrence College includes language from the decision in their admissions application when asking students to reflect on the role of race in their lives.

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