Law school at Washington University St. Louis offered "exploding" scholarships to top applicants. As applications decline, law schools are under greater pressure than ever to keep the credentials of incoming classes high.
Last month the U.S. Supreme Court announced its ruling in Fisher v. University of Texas, reiterating that race-conscious college admissions policies are subject to "strict scrutiny" – a rigorous legal standard. Writing the opinion for a 7-1 majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy stated that when universities use race-based affirmative action, the courts "must ultimately be satisfied that no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity."
In fact, the issue seems far from settled. Fisher will be reconsidered by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear an additional case this fall – Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action – related to affirmative action in Michigan. At issue in Schuette is the constitutionality of statewide bans (usually enacted via popular referendum) on using race in admissions or employment. Because popular support for traditional, race-based preferences has dwindled over the past decade, and Fisher and Schuette are still in play, many Court observers suspect race-based affirmative action will be curtailed significantly if not struck down entirely. If that happens, it seems reasonable to think diversity at our nation's selective institutions of higher education will be radically diminished.
But that’s by no means inevitable. Many states have already faced prohibitions on race-conscious admissions, and have developed innovative admissions strategies to maintain and even increase diversity at their flagship institutions. In some cases, they’ve also managed to increase an even more underrepresented population on campus – poor students.
That’s what happened in 2008, when Colorado faced a ballot initiative seeking to prohibit consideration of race in college admissions. In response, the University of Colorado Boulder (CU) developed a class-based affirmative action system that would serve the university’s interest in admitting a broadly diverse class while complying with the proposed ban on race-conscious admissions. Even though the initiative did not pass, CU went ahead and enhanced its admissions process to give additional consideration to disadvantaged applicants. In 2011, when this class-based system was fully used for the first time, CU enrolled the most socioeconomically and racially diverse freshman class in its history.
So how did CU do it?
The university developed two statistical measures, which its admissions officers now use to identify not only those applicants who have faced adversity, but also those who have demonstrated extraordinary academic achievement in light of their circumstances. The first measure – the "Disadvantage Index" – essentially tells us how an applicant’s socioeconomic background has impacted his or her chances of enrolling in college. The second measure – the "Overachievement Index" – tells us how an applicant’s high school academic credentials (e.g., SAT or ACT scores) compare to those of students with similar backgrounds. Ultimately, the disadvantaged and overachieving applicants identified by these indexes receive a leg up in the admissions process.
Controlled experiments, summarized in an upcoming issue of Harvard Law & Policy Review, showed promising results. First, using the race-neutral indexes to replace race-conscious admissions increased acceptance rates not only for economically disadvantaged applicants, but also for racial minorities. Moreover, analyses suggest some “class-based admits” – those who wouldn’t be accepted without a class-conscious admissions policy – may fare well in college. Specifically, those identified by the Overachievement Index are predicted to earn higher grades and graduate at higher rates than typical CU undergraduates.
The unprecedented diversity of the freshman class of 2011 seems to validate the experimental findings, but to be fair, many factors outside admissions policy can influence campus diversity. At CU, for example, expanded recruitment, outreach, and student retention efforts deserve much of the credit. Class-based affirmative action cannot sustain socioeconomic and racial diversity on its own; universities need comprehensive strategies that not only grant additional consideration to disadvantaged applicants during the admissions process, but also encourage them to apply in the first place and support their academic development once they’ve arrived on campus. In their report "A Better Affirmative Action," Richard Kahlenberg and Halley Potter document this sort of thoughtful planning in nine states where race-conscious admissions have already been banned.
Through coordinated recruiting and outreach and carefully designed admissions policies, universities in most of those states have boosted the socioeconomic and racial diversity of incoming classes. Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby has uncovered another promising approach – personalized recruitment materials – that may substantially increase college access for thousands of high-achieving, low-income students who aren’t applying to selective colleges. This research has not gone unnoticed. In recent months, we’ve seen a rising tide of calls from across the ideological spectrum to seriously pursue class-based affirmative action, at a time when enthusiasm for race-based preferences seems to be waning.
The point here is not that universities should revamp their recruitment materials or adopt the Disadvantage and Overachievement Indexes and expect a seamless transition away from race-conscious admissions. Rather, the point is that social scientists have been hard at work for quite some time developing, refining, and studying class-conscious strategies that can advance the goals and social purposes of the universities that use them. The University of Colorado recognized the value in this line of research, and took proactive steps to support campus diversity by considering class in its admissions process.
Given last month's Fisher ruling and the Schuette decision to come, other university administrators should follow suit. Sooner would probably be better, to avoid the hasty adoption of class-based policies in the scramble of legal uncertainty. As Greg Roberts, the dean of admission at the University of Virginia, recently pointed out, "If there are changes to how we define diversity then I expect schools will really work hard at identifying low-income students." For those of us who care deeply about equal opportunity and social justice, class-conscious admissions policies offer unique promise: They focus our attention on socioeconomic integration, and may open new pathways to higher education for students who have traditionally faced economic, social, and institutional barriers.
Matthew Gaertner worked with the University of Colorado Boulder office of admissions to create these class-based admissions indexes. He is currently a research scientist in the Center for College & Career at Pearson.
The University of California has abandoned plans for large, widespread increases in graduate and professional school tuition, The Los Angeles Times reported. The original plan would have resulted in major increases for about 14,000 students. Now only about 800 students, primarily in nursing, will be affected. And those who still face an increase would see costs go up by about $619 a year, not the $2,700 originally planned. Governor Jerry Brown had strongly opposed the originally planned increases.
WASHINGTON — After protests from historically black colleges that new underwriting standards for Parent PLUS loans have hurt their institutions, the Education Department has told colleges it will simplify the appeals process for students who are denied loans but stands by its new criteria. In a notice sent to institutions, the department announced it would create lists of applicants who are eligible to appeal loan denials and inform applicants by e-mail if they qualify.
Since the department tightened underwriting standards in 2011, 400,000 parents have been denied loans. The denials have fallen disproportionately on historically black colleges, leaders of those institutions have argued in asking the Obama administration to reconsider.
Lawmakers in Oregon have passed legislation authorizing a study and pilot of the idea of replacing tuition at public colleges and universities with commitments by students to repay a small percentage of future income to the state, The New York Times reported. In Oregon, a class at Portland State University did extensive research on the idea. The idea has also been much discussed (but without legislative action comparable to Oregon's) in California.
An analysis by USA Today has found 265 colleges at which the odds of students defaulting on their loans are greater than the odds of freshmen graduating. Nearly half of the colleges are for-profit institutions, and about one-third are community colleges. However, smaller shares of the students at community colleges borrow, and their loans are smaller, than at for-profit institutions.
Last week's Supreme Court decision raises questions about whether colleges have explored race-neutral alternatives to the consideration of race in admissions decisions. An article in The Los Angles Times notes that the University of California at Berkeley and the University of California at Los Angeles have had to explore race-neutral alternatives ever since the state in 1996 barred them from considering race. Both campuses have created and expanded various outreach efforts.
But black and Latino enrollments have still not recovered. At UCLA, black students made up 7.1 percent of the class admitted the year before consideration of race was banned. Last fall, they made up 3.6 percent of freshmen. At Berkeley, the fall was from 6.3 percent to 3.4 percent. Latino enrollments are also down, and although the drops are smaller, the state saw large increases during this time period in the share of Latinos in state high schools. Still, at UCLA, the percentage of Latinos dropped from 21.5 percent while consideration of race and ethnicity was allowed to 18.1 percent. At Berkeley, the drop was 15.5 percent to 13 percent.
A new Gallup Poll has found that the factor adult Americans are most likely to say is most important in selecting a college is the percentage of graduates who are able to find a good job. That factor was picked by 41 percent of those polled, followed by the price of the college (37 percent) and graduation rates (16 percent). The wealthier that respondents were, the more likely they were to say that the job success of graduates was the most important factor.
The same poll also asked questions about tuition.
Asked if higher tuition rates meant that the quality of the college was higher, 25 percent strongly disagreed and another 20 percent disagreed. Only 10 percent strongly agreed, with another 13 percent agreeing.
Gallup also asked what amount would be affordable for one year of full-time tuition (not counting room, board or books). Two percent said no tuition was affordable, 15 percent said less than $5,000, 18 percent said $5,000 to less than $10,000, 26 percent said $10,000 to less than $20,000, 10 percent said $20,000 to less than $30,000, and 5 percent said $30,000 or more.