Essay urges colleges to rethink approaches to affirmative action

On April 22 the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, upholding Michigan voters’ 2006 decision to ban race-based preferences in college admissions. Two immediate consequences of this decision are worth clarifying. First, and most obviously, race-based affirmative action remains prohibited at public universities in Michigan, a state whose population is over 14 percent black but whose flagship public school – the University of Michigan – serves a student body that is only 4 percent black. Second, less obvious and less often emphasized, the Supreme Court opted not to overturn the principle that racial diversity on a college campus is a compelling interest, as it yields unique educational benefits.

In legal terms, race-based affirmative action was left untouched by the Schuette decision. In practical terms, however, the decision could have far-reaching impacts. While there is still nothing unconstitutional about affirmative action, there is now nothing unconstitutional about banning it. That means statewide prohibitions in California, Washington, Arizona, and Nebraska will remain in place and additional challenges to race-conscious admissions are likely to surface. Moreover, the Court’s decision in the Michigan case follows a pair of well-publicized campaigns in other states designed to either chip away at remaining affirmative action policies or beat back efforts to revive those that have been outlawed.

These legal and political developments leave higher education leaders in a quandary. Most of us, from Chief Justice John Roberts to John Q. Public, agree racial diversity is a good thing, and worth pursuing. But pursuing it explicitly by considering race in admissions seems to be falling out of favor at the national level and facing voter opposition in some states.  

Fortunately, promising alternatives are gaining traction. While it is self-evident that the best way to achieve racial diversity is to select on race, granting college applicants additional consideration on the basis of socioeconomic hardship may represent the next chapter of affirmative action. Class-based admissions preferences have two particularly attractive features. First, they can cushion the racial blow of an affirmative action ban by capitalizing on the overlap between race and socioeconomic status. Just as important, they can boost college access for disadvantaged students of all races who have overcome obstacles few other college applicants have faced.

Research on class-based affirmative action is still in its infancy, but the results thus far seem promising. In nine states where race-conscious policies have been banned and class-based alternatives have taken hold, racial diversity at selective colleges has rebounded after an initial drop. My own research at the University of Colorado demonstrated that class-based admissions considerations – when sufficiently nuanced and faithfully implemented – can maintain racial diversity and identify applicants who will perform much better in college than their raw academic credentials suggest. Promoting this sort of experimentation seems to be what the Supreme Court has in mind, as last month’s plurality decision reiterated that “universities can and should draw on the most promising aspects of race-neutral alternatives as they develop.”

It should also be emphasized that although the Supreme Court’s ruling in Schuette homed in on admissions decisions, solutions to the economic and racial divide in higher education need not maintain such a narrow focus. For example, the University of California system has developed robust outreach programs to connect with high-achieving low-income middle school students and encourage them to apply to selective universities (nationally, more than 100,000 such students every year do not apply to selective schools). Like class-based affirmative action, outreach is not a diversity panacea. But without talented low-income applicants, colleges will face a supply problem that no admissions solution – race-based or class-based – can overcome.

I ultimately support considering class and race jointly in admissions as the most obvious, efficient, and logical way to boost socioeconomic and racial diversity. But to the extent the Schuette ruling emboldens new state-level campaigns to ban traditional affirmative action, university leaders should begin investigating workable alternatives that suit their schools’ missions. Beginning that process now will serve selective colleges well as the political landscape continues to change.

Matthew Gaertner is a senior research scientist in the Center for College & Career Success at Pearson.

S.C. Comptroller's Comments on a Black College

Many black leaders in South Carolina are demanding that Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom apologize for comments he made Wednesday about South Carolina State University, its students and other historically black colleges, The State reported. Eckstrom is a member of the South Carolina Budget and Control Board, which voted to lend South Carolina State, which is running out of money, $6 million. Eckstrom abstained from the vote, but in discussion of the university said this of its students: "These are not kids coming from wealthy parents. These are kids that are going there because they can't get into these other schools." Critics say he thus maligned any student who opted to go to South Carolina State, but he says he was referencing only their low financial resources.

He also questioned the term "historically black college" and the idea that states have an obligation to such institutions. "I'm committed to the university because it's a university, not because it's a historically black university," he said. "I think the sooner this state gets away from the concept of talking about historically black universities is a step forward for this state. We no longer talk about historically white universities. I think we need to deal with the issues of funding needs at South Carolina State because it's an institution of higher learning."




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Virginia to Give Some Undocumented Immigrants State Student Aid

Attorney General Mark Herring of Virginia announced on Tuesday that under state law, Virginia residents who qualify for the federal government's "deferred action" program for immigrants without legal documentation can qualify for state financial aid. The attorney general's announcement, which his office made in Hindi and Korean as well as Spanish and English, comes weeks after the state's legislature rejected a bill that would have established a state "Dream Act," won support from Gov. Terry McAuliffe but some criticism from Republicans in the state.

Nearly 20 states have established some sort of tuition equity for undocumented immigrants.


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Female faculty member sues over tenure denial she attributes to child care duties

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Former University of Pennsylvania history professor asserts in a lawsuit that she was denied tenure because she took time off to care for her children.

Court orders university to defend rejection of applicant with Crohn's disease

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Federal appeals panel orders Ohio State to defend accusations that it rejected a candidate for a Ph.D. program because she has Crohn's disease.

Protests on Anti-Gay Policy of Canadian Law School

A new law school at Canada's Trinity Western University, in British Columbia, appeared to have won all necessary approvals last year to start -- despite criticism from human rights groups about the university's policy of barring students from having non-heterosexual sex. But a new round of opposition has emerged. Critics have gathered enough signatures on a petition to force a new vote by the Law Society of British Columbia, whose council had approved accreditation of the law school, The Globe and Mail reported. A vote by the larger membership could go the other way. And even if the law school holds on to its accreditation for British Columbia, its graduates will not be able to practice law in Ontario because that province's legal society voted Friday against recognition, CBC News reported. Nova Scotia's legal society has taken a similar position, although it also stated explicitly that if Trinity Western ends discrimination against gay people, its law school can be accredited so that its graduates could work in the province.



Lehigh Expels Student Who Vandalized Multicultural Dorm

Lehigh University has expelled a student who vandalized a multicultural residence hall, The Express-Times reported. The student's name was not released but the university said that he was drunk at the time and took eggs and tomatoes from a fraternity to throw them at the residence hall.


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Protests at Smith on Transgender Admissions Policy

Three dozen students picketed the admissions office at Smith College Thursday to demand a change in the institution's policy with regard to transgender students, The Republican reported. Smith does not discriminate against transgender students once they are enrolled, but the college only admits women. The protest called for Smith to admit those who may be listed as male on their high school transcripts but have been living as women. Here is how Smith explains its admissions policy with regard to transgender applicants: "An application from a transgender student is treated no differently from other applications: every application Smith receives is considered on a case-by-case basis. Like most women’s colleges, Smith expects that, to be eligible for review, a student’s application and supporting documentation (transcripts, recommendations, etc.) will reflect her status as a woman."


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Female leaders at colleges report discouragement but can be role models

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A new study, based on interviews with 35 female college leaders, shows how women are discouraged but can encourage other women.

U. of Utah Debates Changing Its Fight Song

Student leaders at the University of Utah have formally asked that the institution change parts of its fight song that are seen as racist and sexist, The Salt Lake Tribune. The song's name "Utah Man" is one point of contention. Others point to lines such as "Our coeds are the fairest." The university has yet to indicate whether it will make changes, but some alumni have demanded that the song -- beloved by many -- not change.


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