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California voters will decide this fall whether to repeal Proposition 209, which prohibits gender- and race-based preferences in admission decisions. Students called for its repeal in the pictured 2012 protest.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News via Getty Images.

The barriers to admitting more Black students to the nation’s selective universities are numerous and well-known.

Research shows college admission officers focus recruiting efforts on wealthy, predominantly white high schools.

Black students are far more likely to attend high-poverty schools and to have less access to core college preparatory classes in math and science.

Black students earn lower scores, on average, on standardized college admission tests such as the SAT and ACT.

The wealth gap between white and Black families remains as wide as it was in 1968, hurting the ability of Black families to pay for test-prep courses and private college counseling services. And Black students leave college with higher amounts of student debt than white students, impacting both their college experiences and their future prospects.

Legacy admission preferences favor wealthy white students, perpetuating long-standing inequalities in college access.

And in some states, prohibitions on affirmative action preclude any consideration of race in the admissions process.

A recent report by the Education Trust on Black and Latinx enrollment at 101 selective public colleges found only 9 percent enroll Black students at rates proportionate to their population within the state. The organization, which advocates for educational opportunities for all students with a focus on students of color, found that the percentage of Black students at nearly 60 percent of the institutions has actually fallen since 2000.

The report makes a number of recommendations, including increasing access to "high-quality" high school guidance counselors and using race more prominently in admission decisions. The report also advocates rescinding state bans on affirmative action, increasing aid to Black and Latinx students, adjusting recruitment strategies, improving campus racial climates, changing funding incentives, and reducing the role of standardized testing in admissions or going test optional.

“There is no acceptable reason in 2020 for the vast majority of these 101 public colleges to systematically exclude Black students like this -- and to a great extent, Latino students as well,” said Andrew Howard Nichols, the author of the report and senior director for research and data analytics at the Education Trust. “It is past time for public college presidents to take substantive antiracist action that matches their soaring antiracist rhetoric.”

Many college leaders issued statements speaking out against racism and affirming their institutions’ commitments to diversity and inclusion in the wake of the killings by police of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. But moving those stated commitments from mere words to actual action in the midst of the pandemic will be undoubtedly be challenging, especially at a time when colleges are under more financial pressure than ever before -- and under more critical scrutiny for their handling of both racial issues and their response to the public health emergency.

“A lot of institutions are going to be thinking, we need more students who can pay tuition by going for upper-middle-class students, for example, who are predominantly white. That’s all well and good if you’re thinking from a tuition standpoint, but not from an equity standpoint,” said W. Carson Byrd, a sociologist and scholar in residence at the University of Michigan’s National Center for Institutional Diversity. “As more institutions find themselves in more difficult financial times, how much are they going to turn away from their statements about racial equity and instead go back to … the economic factors that are important? For me it’s a both/and; it’s not an either/or.’”

From Conversation to Action

Marie Bigham, a former college admissions professional and the executive director of ACCEPT, a group that advocates for racial equity in college admissions, said people in the field talk a lot about racial equity.

“We’ve been stuck in conversation as opposed to pushing towards action, but now we’re in a space where everything’s pushing us toward action,” she said. “The racial reckoning happening in higher ed is forcing action.”

“One of the easy immediate fixes that colleges can put into place at this moment to get beyond statements of equity is get rid of legacy admissions right now, across the board, and get rid of demonstrated interest as an indicator in the process at all,” Bigham said.

Demonstrated interest refers to admissions offices tracking ways in which students interact with them, by visiting campus or engaging on social media, for example. Colleges use demonstrated interest as a measure because they think an engaged applicant is more likely to accept an admission offer.

Longer term, Bigham said, “I think we as admission professionals, we’ve got to become vocal about financial aid, reforming that system from top to bottom.”

ACCEPT co-organized a research initiative, Hack the Gates, which culminated over the summer with the publication of a series of policy papers focused on equity in college admissions.

A paper by Ted Thornhill, a sociologist and associate professor at Florida Gulf Coast University, advocates for systematically auditing admission officers' email correspondences with students to ensure they are equally responsive to prospective students and applicants across different socio-demographic groups. Thornhill’s past research has shown that fictional Black students who emphasize Black identity or racial activism in email messages to admissions officers are less likely to receive responses than Black students who send messages lacking explicit mention of race.

He argued admissions professionals “should be advocating at their own institutions in a really serious way to bring about greater racial equity. What kinds of institutions are you bringing students into?” he asked.

“You sing the praises, the institutional line, about all the positive things you do and how you help students cultivate a body of knowledge and a skill set that will serve them well in their future endeavors. You say all that, but most of these predominantly white institutions are deeply racist.”

The Standardized Testing Piece

One area in admissions where there has been rapid change since the start of the pandemic is in the movement to make standardized tests optional.

The number of institutions going test optional was already growing fast but accelerated after the pandemic forced the cancellation of test administrations. FairTest: National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a group that advocates for test-optional policies, reported in September that 1,570 four-year colleges across the U.S. will not require applicants to submit a SAT or ACT score for fall 2021 admission. Test-blind or test-optional institutions now account for more than two-thirds of all four-year institutions in the U.S., according to FairTest's count.

Researchers have found mixed results as to whether test-optional policies lead to increases in enrollment of low-income and underrepresented minority groups. Testing companies have argued that using standardized test scores alongside other measures, including grades, provides a more accurate and complete view of student performance compared with using any one measure alone.

Even those who advocate for test-optional policies argue they are not a "silver bullet." Dominique J. Baker, assistant professor of education policy​ at Southern Methodist University, and Kelly Rosinger, an assistant professor of education at Pennsylvania State University, noted in a recent article published in Education Next that “test scores are not the only source of bias in the selective admissions process.”

“Race and class inequalities are baked into many of the metrics that selective colleges use to evaluate applicants,” Baker and Rosinger wrote. “For instance, there are decades of research demonstrating that low-income students and students of color have less access to the advanced high-school coursework that selective colleges view as a measure of a rigorous curriculum. While selective colleges try to evaluate applicants in the context of their individual high schools and communities -- that is, taking into account whether students took advantage of the most difficult coursework available to them -- other common metrics used to evaluate students may also reflect racial and class privilege.”

The topic of test-optional admissions -- and what colleges rely on if they don’t use a standardized test score -- came up at a recent town hall meeting on systemic racism and college admissions organized by the National Association for College Admission Counseling in June.

“Every time someone says ‘test optional,’ I feel like somebody should say ‘transparency,’” said Tevera Stith, one of the panelists and vice president for KIPP Through College & Career for the KIPP public schools in Washington, D.C. “There are schools who have long done test optional … but they’re not transparent about how those applications are reviewed, so first I would put the onus on my colleagues at the college level in college admissions offices to be transparent about how they’re making those decisions.”

Ericka Matthews-Jackson, senior director of undergraduate admissions at Wayne State University in Detroit and another panelist at the NACAC town hall, said the pandemic “pulled the scab off the wound really quickly” in terms of colleges’ reliance on test scores.

“Now a lot of institutions are going to have to grapple with how do we change with our admissions policies and what things are going to be important to us rather than us taking the easy route and saying, ‘Oh yeah, you have this test score and this GPA; therefore you get admitted,’” Matthews-Jackson said at the event.

“I think it’s going to require more than just taking a look at essays. There’s a lot of things to take a look at when you’re considering what a student has gone through to get to the point where they’re ready for college, what kind of high school were they educated in, what kind of resources did they have available, what did they avail themselves of in terms of educational opportunities prior to them coming. Are they first generation to go to college; is English their second language? There are so many things that we should be considering and looking at, because we do want to have institutions that represent our communities.”

Considering Race

What about considerations of race?

Fewer than 7 percent of colleges -- 6.8 -- say race or ethnicity has “considerable influence” on admission decisions, while 17.8 percent say it has “moderate influence” and 16.9 percent “limited influence,” according to NACAC’s 2019 “State of College Admission” report.

Well over half -- 58.4 percent -- said race or ethnicity has no influence on their admission decisions.

The use of race in college admission decisions is, of course, an exceedingly controversial and legally contested topic, subject of multiple Supreme Court cases stretching back to 1974. The Supreme Court has upheld the consideration of race in admissions, most recently in the second Fisher v. Texas case in 2016.

However, legal challenges contesting the scope of the use of race in admission persist and have kept colleges on the defensive.

Harvard University successfully defended itself in a federal lawsuit last year alleging its admission policies discriminate against Asian Americans. The case is now being heard in a federal appeals court.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Justice sued Yale University over its admission policies and accused it of illegal discrimination against Asian American and white applicants. Yale's president, Peter Salovey, described the lawsuit as "baseless" and defended the university's admission practices as "completely fair and lawful."

Meanwhile, nine states -- California, Florida and Michigan being among the biggest and Idaho being most recent -- have adopted bans on race-based affirmative action. Public universities in a 10th state, Georgia, dropped the use of race in admissions after losing a court challenge in 2000.

A study of the effect of these state-level bans published earlier this year in the journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis found “the elimination of affirmative action has led to persistent declines in the share of underrepresented minorities among students admitted to and enrolling in public flagship universities in these states.”

Policy change may be coming at least in California. The Board of Regents for the University of California unanimously voted in June to endorse the repeal of the state's nearly quarter-century-old prohibition on using race- and gender-based preferences in admission decisions at public universities. California residents will vote on whether to repeal the affirmative action ban in November.

The UC system maintains that “despite years of effort with race-neutral admissions,” its enrollment of students from underrepresented minority groups -- and its recruitment of faculty of color -- “falls short of reflecting the diversity of California’s population.”

Among the steps UC has taken over the years is the introduction of a program in 2001 called Eligibility in the Local Context, which guarantees admission to students graduating in the top 9 percent of each participating high school, and the development of a holistic review process for undergraduate admission in which students are “evaluated for admission using multiple measures of achievement and promise while considering the context in which each student has demonstrated academic accomplishment.”

“We think that in a university as large and as complex as ours, that uses as many as 14 different characteristics to evaluate candidates for admission, that we can implement a 15th characteristic to help us find the right cross-section of students,” said John A. Pérez, chair of the regents.

“It’s not just about race,” he said. “It’s also about gender. We can’t use either, and would argue that the evidence is pretty clear. There is no proxy for gender; there is no proxy for race. You could find a bunch of workarounds or you can be honest and forthright. What we’re saying is we should be able to have an honest, forthright evaluation of the totality of factors that make someone who they are and speak to that which they’ve achieved.”

Among the opponents to ending the affirmative action ban in California is former UC regent chair, Ward Connerly, who led the campaign for the 1996 ballot measure Proposition 209, which imposed the ban in the first place. He is chairman of Californians for Equal Rights, the campaign to reject the repeal of Proposition 209. The campaign has been endorsed by a coalition of community organizations, including a number of groups representing Asian Americans, who fear they will be disadvantaged in admissions by the introduction of race-based preferences.

Connerly argued Prop 209 didn’t ban affirmative action, per se.

“It bans discrimination and preferential treatment and it’s those last two words that create heartburn for the practitioners of affirmative action, because they know in their heart of hearts as they practice it, it really does amount to different standards for different groups on the basis of race and color,” he said. “They can justify that, but I can’t, because I'd have to believe that Black people and Latinos are inherently unable to compete alongside whites and Asians for admission to the University of California, and I don’t believe that. It’s not an accurate premise. It’s racist in its own self.”

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