Affirmative Action Workarounds

Affirmative Action is on the Supreme Court’s docket (photo credit: Senate Democrats).

If the Supreme Court chooses to outlaw the consideration of race in college admissions, which is a distinct possibility and — we would argue — even probability, how will America’s colleges continue to enroll diverse student bodies? After all, it wouldn’t be a good look for America’s elite universities to suddenly start looking like they did back in the early twentieth century. These schools most certainly do not want to be bastions of white privilege. So how will these universities counteract the outlawing of the consideration of race in college admissions? What steps will they take to find a workaround? Recently, we wrote about how when The Common Application, to much fanfare, eliminated the disciplinary prompt on the application, many elite universities chose to ask a similar question on their supplements to The Common App. In short, they figured out a workaround. Will elite colleges soon do the same if Affirmative Action is off the table?

In an excellent piece for The Wall Street Journal entitled “Colleges Weigh New Admissions Strategies,” Melissa Korn details some lengths America’s elite colleges may go to in order to keep their student bodies racially diverse. As she writes, “[College admissions officers] say that would mean widening recruiting efforts, looking more closely at applicants’ backgrounds and proactively offering spots to students before they even apply…If the Supreme Court decision bars the consideration of race in admitting applicants, universities might be able to improve how they tap into applicant pools. ‘Most of the elite schools are fishing in the same pond,’ says Josh Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program. ‘There’s a series of ponds outside their sightlines they need to be casting their lines into.’…Schools will need to look beyond high-school grade-point averages and test scores if race-based affirmative action disappears, proponents of student diversity say.”

Of course, there does exist data that can light the path forward for America’s colleges should the consideration of race be outlawed in college admissions decision-making. After all, some states, like California and Texas, have already banned the practice of Affirmative Action. As Korn writes, “California voters eliminated race-based affirmative action in 1996, and upheld the decision in 2020. Black and Latino enrollment plummeted in the late 1990s at schools like the University of California, Berkeley, and UCLA. Today, the student body is diverse but enrollment doesn’t reflect the state’s overall demographics. Last fall the UC system’s undergraduate enrollment was 22% Hispanic and 4.4% Black, while 39% of California’s population was Hispanic and 5.7% Black, according to the 2020 census. Asian students made up 31% of UC enrollment, compared with 15% of the total state population. [The UC system] also introduced a policy that effectively guaranteed the top 4% of students from any California public school admission to most UC campuses…When the UC system expanded that policy to the top 9%, it guaranteed spots only at UC Merced, the least selective school in the system. Dr. Bleemer says very few students accepted the offers. ‘California is a really dispiriting counterexample,’ he says.”

And has Texas been any better? Have the UT schools been able to maintain diverse campuses after the consideration of race in college admissions was banned in Texas? Not really. As Korn writes, “In 1997 Texas began guaranteeing the top 10% of its high-school graduates admission to its public universities. (For the University of Texas, Austin, it’s now the top 6%.) Recent research shows the effort hasn’t increased racial diversity in the state’s flagship universities. The approach of taking a certain top percentage of high-school students to boost underrepresented minorities would be more effective in areas where high schools themselves are less diverse, researchers say.”

So there is indeed data on how a ban on Affirmative Action hurts racial diversity on college campuses. It’s just not data that offers tons of hope. The fact is, Affirmative Action is the most successful practice to increase racial diversity on college campuses that America’s higher educational leaders have ever come up with and, if it’s outlawed across this nation, look for the racial diversity to drop — and drop significantly. It’s safe to surmise that the data from California and Texas are indeed harbingers of what’s to come in such a scenario.

 
 

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