With Supreme Court Decision, College Admissions Could Become More Subjective

In the Supreme Court ruling that invalidated the use of racial and ethnic preferences in college admissions, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. expressed strong criticism towards Harvard and the University of North Carolina, describing their admissions procedures as “elusive,” “opaque,” and “imponderable.” However, the court’s decision against these universities on Thursday could potentially result in an admissions system that is even more subjective and mysterious as colleges strive to comply with the law while still admitting a diverse student body. Officials at several universities anticipated a reduced emphasis on standardized metrics such as test scores and class rank, with a greater emphasis on personal qualities conveyed through recommendations and application essays. This outcome runs counter to the expectations of many opponents of affirmative action. Danielle Ren Holley, who is set to assume the presidency of Mount Holyoke College, remarked, “Will it become more opaque? Yes, it will have to. It’s a complex process, and this opinion will make it even more complex.”

During an interview, Edward Blum, the founder and president of Students for Fair Admissions, the plaintiff in the case, defended the use of what he referred to as “standard measurements” of academic qualifications. He cited studies indicating that test scores, grades, and coursework are instrumental in determining which students are likely to excel in competitive institutions. Blum pledged to enforce the court’s decision, asserting that Students for Fair Admissions and their legal representatives “have been closely monitoring potential changes in admissions procedures.” He stated in a released statement on Thursday, “We remain vigilant and intend to initiate litigation should universities defiantly flout this clear ruling.”

However, it would be nearly impossible to completely eliminate any reference or indication of race in the admissions process, starting from applicants’ names. Furthermore, Justice Roberts explicitly left room for considering an individual’s racial or ethnic background in relation to their life experiences. In the decision, he wrote, “Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.”

Affirmative action has been banned at the University of California, Berkeley, for decades.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

However, Justice Roberts cautioned that the personal essay should not covertly indicate the applicant’s race. He stated, “In other words, the student must be evaluated based on their individual experiences, not on the basis of race. Many universities have long been guilty of doing just the opposite.” Following the ruling, universities, including Harvard and U.N.C., announced their commitment to comply. Nevertheless, for external skeptics, deciphering a university’s true intentions will pose a challenge. How can one determine whether an admissions decision was influenced by an essay on personal resilience or by the race it revealed? Richard Sander, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has expressed criticism of affirmative action, remarked, “I think a very plausible outcome of this will be that schools will just cheat and say, ‘Let’s see who gets sued.’ The chances of an individual school being sued are low, and the cost of litigation is quite high.”

Certain education officials have already begun discussing how to leverage the personal essay. Shannon Gundy, an admissions official at the University of Maryland, suggested in a recent presentation sponsored by the American Council on Education that students should tailor their admissions essays to address how race has impacted their lives. She commented, “Right now, students write about their soccer practice, they write about their grandmother dying. They don’t write about their trials and tribulations. They don’t write about the challenges they’ve had to face.” Additionally, colleges may introduce more specific essay prompts in line with the “diversity, equity, and inclusion” statements that have become common in faculty hiring processes.

In college essays, students “don’t write about their trials and tribulations,” said Shannon Gundy, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Maryland.Credit...Shuran Huang for The New York Times
In college essays, students “don’t write about their trials and tribulations,” said Shannon Gundy, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Maryland.Credit…Shuran Huang for The New York Times

Ms. Holley, the incoming president of Mount Holyoke, envisioned a potential essay prompt that would inquire: “One of the fundamental values upheld by Mount Holyoke College is embracing diversity in all its forms. Please elaborate on the significance of diversity to you and how you believe your unique background and perspective would contribute to the Mount Holyoke community.” College officials anticipate an immediate decline in the enrollment of Black and Hispanic students at selective universities following the decision, mirroring the experiences of California and Michigan after those states implemented bans on affirmative action in their public universities years ago. For instance, at the University of California, Berkeley, Black students accounted for only 3.4 percent of the incoming freshman class in the most recent fall term, a quarter-century after the ban was enacted.

However, many of the approximately 100 schools that practice affirmative action have been preparing for this scenario for months or even years. They have already taken steps toward transitioning to a “race-neutral” admissions approach—one that adheres to the letter of the law while seeking methods to maintain the spirit of affirmative action. While academic excellence remains important, standardized tests are no longer required and, in some cases, not even considered. Schools are increasingly prioritizing high-achieving students from low-income families or those who are the first in their families to pursue higher education (“first-gen” applicants). Institutions are investing in student support programs and expanding need-based financial aid offerings. Additionally, selective colleges are likely to play a more proactive role in cultivating prospective applicants. For example, the University of Virginia recently announced a plan to target 40 high schools in eight regions of the state that historically had limited representation among applicants. Duke University also pledged to provide full tuition grants to students from North and South Carolina with family incomes of $150,000 or less. “The most challenging aspect is identifying and recruiting the students,” explained Alison Byerly, the president of Carleton College, who stated that the college would enhance its partnerships with community organizations. L. Song Richardson, the president of Colorado College, affirmed that qualified students from diverse backgrounds are available, stating, “If we believe that talent is equally distributed” across different demographic groups, “then an unbiased recruitment process should naturally yield a diverse student body.”

L. Song Richardson, president of Colorado College, said that talented students were out there.Credit...Stephen Speranza for The New York Times

Some educators argue that California’s experience following its 1996 ban on affirmative action demonstrates the potential success of race-neutral programs. In 2021, the University of California system admitted its most diverse class ever. However, recruiting efforts came at a high cost, reaching hundreds of millions of dollars, and the flagship campus at Berkeley is still working to bridge the gap. The risks associated with race-neutral policies differ for certain public universities like the University of North Carolina and the University of Virginia, which have previously faced opposition from conservative politicians regarding “diversity, equity, and inclusion” initiatives. It is highly likely that these institutions will approach any ambiguous race-neutral measures with caution. “One of the real trends you observe among public universities is their attempt to be as apolitical as possible, irrespective of whether they are in red states or blue states,” noted Gordon Gee, the president of West Virginia University. He likened the situation to the controversial hiring of a transgender spokeswoman by a beer company, saying, “It’s kind of a Bud Light moment.”

There could also be pressure to overhaul the entire admissions process by eliminating preferences for legacy applicants and children of donors, who are often white and affluent. Thus far, most schools have resisted such calls, arguing that these preferences foster a sense of community and contribute to fundraising efforts. However, given the prevailing skepticism surrounding college admissions and the perception that the system is rigged in favor of the privileged and well-connected, the Supreme Court’s decision may prompt a reevaluation. “This is a significant setback for racial justice, but it also presents an opportunity,” remarked Jerome Karabel, a sociologist at U.C. Berkeley who specializes in college admissions. “Now is the time to go back to the drawing board and explore alternative approaches. There are countless ideas out there.”

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