What colleges are up against if the Supreme Court bans affirmative action
In the coming year, the Supreme Court appears poised to ban or sharply limit affirmative action in college admissions, reversing 40 years of precedent and overturning admission practices at hundreds of colleges and universities.
Affirmative action has been the subject of heated controversy for decades. In a series of decisions dating back to 1978, the Supreme Court concluded that the educational benefits of diversity constitute a compelling governmental interest justifying some consideration of race in college admissions. Decades of social science research and “the overwhelming consensus of American universities” support that conclusion. Affirmative action is also justified, we would add, because, as Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi have observed, discrimination against groups, like radioactive waste, “has a long, diffuse, and toxic half-life.”
Nonetheless, in 2014, Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), a non-profit formed by conservative activist Edward Blum, sued Harvard University and the University of North Carolina (UNC) for allegedly discriminating against Asian-American and, in UNC’s case, white applicants. After losing in the lower courts, SFFA appealed to the Supreme Court, which will hear oral arguments on Oct. 31.
Given the changing landscape, admissions professionals in colleges and universities have been working hard to address the obstacles they face — by identifying, adopting, and/or expanding race-neutral strategies to attract a talented and diverse student body.
The fundamental issue, of course, is whether institutions of higher education can meet their diversity goals through race-neutral alternatives. The short answer is no, but race-neutral alternatives can contribute to student-body diversity.
Ten states, including California, Florida, and Michigan, already prohibit consideration of race in public university admissions. Since most colleges and universities admit most of the students who apply, bans on affirmative action have relatively little impact on them. But at highly selective institutions, the elimination of affirmative action has led to sharp declines in the percentages of students from underrepresented groups.
Following a 1996 ban on affirmative action at the University of California (UC) system, for example, enrollment of Black and Native American students at Berkeley and UCLA, the system’s most selective campuses, was “cut in half.” Ever since, the UC system has “experiment[ed] with a wide variety of alternative approaches” for fostering student-body diversity, with only limited success. In 2019, although over 52 percent of California public high school graduates identified as Latinx, just 25 percent of UC freshmen did. At Berkeley, only 15 percent of freshmen identified as Latinx, and similar disparities exist for African American and Native American students. Other public university systems dealing with bans on affirmative action, such as those in Michigan and Oklahoma, have experienced similar outcomes.
But even though race-neutral measures cannot overcome the impact of a ban, they can help. The impact of any given race-neutral measure will depend on an institution’s characteristics, demographic patterns, and the ability to afford often expensive programs. Percentage plans, for example, which admit all students whose grades place them near the top of their high school class, might prove beneficial in states with a large number of majority-minority high schools. In Texas, a “top 10 percent” plan helped increase enrollment of Latinx students (though it had little impact on Black student enrollment). By contrast, in Michigan, where the “number of majority-minority schools is dwarfed by the number of schools that are heavily white,” a percentage plan “would have minimal or negative effects on racial diversity.”
SFFA and other critics of affirmative action often claim that targeting economically and educationally disadvantaged students is the best way to achieve diversity. In those categories, however, white students with competitive academic qualifications often greatly outnumber students of color; as a result, efforts to target those groups increase socioeconomic diversity, an important benefit in its own right, but are “less effective at enrolling students from underrepresented minority groups.”
The best approach, which many colleges now follow in various ways, involves “widening the funnel,” that is, to combine generous financial aid programs with targeted recruitment strategies. In addition to increasing admission officer presentations to students (and, when possible, their parents or guardians) at high schools with diverse populations, strategies include virtual high school visits, enhanced campus visit programs that focus on underrepresented prospective applicants, workshops for high school counsellors, and scholarships for high school sophomores and juniors to attend on campus summer academic programs. Building partnerships with community-based organizations, including affinity groups, and working with community colleges on transfer programs may also help.
Harvard, UNC, and many other institutions have already deployed many of these measures, and the admission office professionals continue to find new and data-driven ways to innovate. But much work is still needed to determine best practices generally and for each institution.
The Supreme Court is likely to reach a decision in the Harvard and UNC cases by June 2023. As they hope for the best and prepare for the worst, it’s time for colleges and universities to redouble their already considerable efforts to prepare for the challenges ahead.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Isaac Kramnick) of “Cornell: A History, 1940-2015.”
David Wippman is the President of Hamilton College.
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