In the last week, a major subject of testimony in the trial over Harvard University's admissions policies was whether the university could maintain a diverse student body without considering race in admissions.
The question is a crucial one. U.S. Supreme Court rulings that give colleges the right to consider race in admissions stipulate that this authority is conditional on colleges being unable to achieve diversity without considering race. And colleges must show that they have in fact considered race-neutral policies and found them lacking.
The other reason that the question is crucial is one Harvard and its many supporters in academe don't like to talk about: Harvard may lose, if not at the federal district court or appeals court, at the U.S. Supreme Court, where support for past rulings on race and admissions is in doubt. So the discussion of trying to achieve diversity without considering race in admissions is one that may be the future for Harvard and other highly competitive colleges that do consider race in admissions.
Last week a focus of testimony was the report of Richard D. Kahlenberg, a fellow at the Century Foundation. Kahlenberg has long argued for affirmative action based on class, not on race. His arguments are important not just legally, but also politically. Many of those who are champions of ending policies like Harvard's argue for some sort of formula-based admissions system, regardless of the diversity (or lack of diversity) that might result. And many backing the lawsuit charging that Harvard discriminates against Asian Americans have strong ties to the Trump administration and conservative groups.
Kahlenberg, in contrast, speaks with passion about how traditional admissions policies result in far too few low-income students (of all races and ethnicities) being admitted to top colleges. And he identifies as someone appalled by the Trump administration.
Kahlenberg was hired by Students for Fair Admissions, the group suing Harvard, to study the viability of race-neutral approaches to admissions at Harvard. In the report he submitted to the court, he said he was paid $295 an hour for his work.
In the report submitted to the court, Kahlenberg argued that Harvard and other institutions could achieve more socioeconomic diversity and maintain some levels of racial and ethnic diversity with a series of policy changes: increased use of socioeconomic preferences in admissions; increased financial aid; reducing or eliminating preferences for alumni children; increased use of geographic affirmative action; ending early-action or early-decision programs; and admitting more community college transfer students.
Other evidence in the trial backs Kahlenberg on some of these policy changes. The preference for alumni children and athletes increase the odds of admission of white applicants. Many high school educators report that their wealthiest students (generally white) are more likely to use early-decision options since they have had more time and help to make college choices and need not worry about paying for college. Indeed, Harvard and a few other colleges eliminated early action in 2006, only to restore it in 2011 when most other college didn't follow their lead.
And robust programs to admit community college transfers have led to increased diversity at the University of California, Berkeley, which is barred by the state from considering race in ethnicity and has struggled to admit large numbers of black and Latinx freshmen.
Kahlenberg then cites research he and others have done on colleges that have dropped consideration of race in admissions (generally because state referenda have forced them to do so). In every case of such a state ban, he noted, higher education leaders said prior to votes that diversity would be decimated, but he argued that many institutions (such as the University of Washington) have gone on to adopt race-neutral policies that have made them more diverse in the years after consideration of race in the admissions process.
Critics of the research have noted that not all groups have fared well in the post-affirmative action era. Berkeley, for example, continues to struggle with black enrollment. The University of Washington, praised in the Kahlenberg report, is a majority minority institution, but black students make up only 3 percent of the student body.
Another research study cited by Kahlenberg was by Matthew N. Gaertner and Melissa Hart in 2013 about what would happen if the University of Colorado at Boulder shifted from race-based to class-based affirmative action. Gaertner and Hart found that such a system would increase racial as well as socioeconomic diversity.
Their study was also cautious, however, and argued that there are important commonalities in the two types of affirmative action. "Broadly, the values that underlie both race-conscious and class-conscious affirmative action are the same: a conviction that diversity enhances the educational environment, an understanding that merit is something more than scores on standardized tests and high school grades, and a concern that students who have faced disadvantages are often underestimated and therefore passed over for opportunities that will help them overcome those disadvantages," they wrote.
Harvard's experts, in response to Kahlenberg, said that he minimized a number of factors in his review of race-neutral options.
Generally, they said that his evidence minimized the impact of abandoning the consideration of race at the most selective institutions, as opposed to at selective institutions. And this is backed up by data from the University of California. Its campuses are among the most diverse in the country in many ways, and have higher shares of students who are eligible for Pell Grants, by far, than elite private colleges such as Harvard. At the University of California, Riverside, 56 percent of students are eligible for Pell Grants, compared to 11 percent at Harvard.
But Harvard, which considers race, has a student body that is 7 percent black. At Riverside, the figure is 4 percent. And at Berkeley, which is more competitive, the figure is 2 percent. (All of these data are from College Scorecard, maintained by the U.S. Department of Education.) Berkeley has also struggled with some of its professional schools. This year, the M.B.A. program has only 6 black students (in a class of 291).
Harvard also faults Kahlenberg for not focusing on what Gaertner has written about the down sides of class-based admissions. Consider this quote from Gaertner: "Across outcomes, strictly overachieving class-based admits can be expected to perform quite well -- better, in fact, than typical undergraduates. The forecasts for strictly disadvantaged admits, however, are not as encouraging. Their [grade point averages], graduation rates, and earned credit hours lag far behind the baseline. This said, given additional time in college, disadvantaged admits’ graduation rates accelerate comparatively quickly … thereby narrowing the graduation gap. To sum, analysis of college outcomes for historical surrogates suggest college success for class-based admits is possible, but it is far from guaranteed."
Further, Harvard argues that its simulations of adopting Kahlenberg's policies might lead to very slight increases in Asian American and Latinx enrollments, but decreases in black enrollments.
Kahlenberg's work, Harvard says (focusing on the impact on black enrollment), shows that it "is extremely difficult to generate diversity using race-neutral alternatives without inflicting costs in other dimensions a university may value."
As the trial has gone on, Harvard has continued to take a public relations beating over some of its policies, particularly those that favor alumni children. The plaintiffs have focused on affirmative action as the reason more Asian Americans are not admitted. But even defenders of affirmative action are expressing shock over the way the university (like many others) gives a preference to alumni children.
Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for The New York Times who opposes the lawsuit being brought against Harvard, wrote this weekend of his anger over legacy preferences. "We progressives hail opportunity, egalitarianism and diversity. Yet here’s our dirty little secret: some of our most liberal bastions in America rely on a system of inherited privilege that benefits rich whites at the expense of almost everyone else," he wrote.
But even as Kristof and others deride Harvard for "hypocrisy," the U.S. Education Department and at least one federal court have upheld legacy preferences as legal.
And that's why supporters of affirmative action have been circulating studies of the aftermath of the elimination of the consideration of race, showing how some types of institutions and some types of programs struggle to attract diverse students in that environment.
One set of studies being circulated by defenders of affirmative action was prepared by the Civil Rights Project of UCLA, and it finds that most race-neutral systems do not produce comparable levels of diversity as does the consideration of race.
One study the Civil Rights Project did in 2012 draws attention to the particular impact that might be seen in STEM graduate programs. That study found that in four states that barred the consideration of race in admissions, graduate programs in engineering saw a 26 percent drop in underrepresented minority enrollment after bans were adopted (and the base was only 6 percent). In the natural sciences, with a base of 8 percent, the drop was 19 percent.