Ethical College Admissions: Doing the Charleston

Jim Jump analyzes the flip-flop on the consideration of race in admissions.

August 6, 2018

So what exactly is going on at -- and with -- the College of Charleston? Did it end its use of race as a factor in admission two years ago, or not? And has it now restored race-based affirmative action?

Those questions arose last week following publication of two stories in The Post and Courier. Last Sunday, the newspaper reported that the college had quietly stopped considering race as an admissions factor in the summer of 2016. On Tuesday, the headline in a follow-up article was "College of Charleston resumes affirmative action after 2-year hiatus." Based on the juxtaposition with the first article, it would be easy to conclude that the hiatus was two days rather than two years.

According to the Post and Courier, Charleston’s admissions committee in the summer of 2016 substituted first-generation status for race as a tip factor in making admission decisions. The move was made quietly without announcement, and there was no Board of Trustees input into the policy change.

So why the change? It’s unclear. One Charleston official told the newspaper that the college had increased the enrollment of students of color substantially without giving special attention to race in the review process. Diversity enrollment at Charleston has reportedly doubled in the past decade to 20 percent, although there is some evidence that increase may be more tied to the addition of a "two or more races" category in its reporting than a substantial change in the college’s ability to attract a diverse population.

There has also been speculation about the role played by former College of Charleston President Glenn McConnell. McConnell, an alumnus and powerful state legislator who had brokered a compromise to keep the Confederate flag on the grounds of the statehouse back in 2000 and who owned a Confederate gift shop, was appointed president in 2014 by the board over the recommendations of the search committee.

One of McConnell’s first acts as president was to establish a policy similar to the Top 10 Percent plan used by the University of Texas as an alternative to race-based affirmative action. (The Supreme Court case Fisher v. University of Texas did not involve a challenge to the Top 10 Percent policy, but rather a supplemental use of race-based affirmative action in the admissions process.) Under the policy, beginning in 2015 the College of Charleston offered automatic admission to any student graduating in the top 10 percent of a high school located in one of seven area counties. The program is in its pilot stage, but thus far 221 students have enrolled at Charleston, 80 of them students of color.

McConnell retired on July 2 of this year due to health issues and has not issued any statement on the current controversy, but an admissions official at the college told The Post and Courier that the decision to end traditional affirmative action was not driven by the former president.

Interim President Stephen Osborne reinforced that message in a statement issued last Tuesday. "Despite reports to the contrary, the College has not made any changes to its official admissions policies regarding race," he wrote. "There was no secretive effort to change the college’s policies by past administrations. And there was certainly no effort to reduce the college’s commitment to promoting diversity on campus."

Osborne’s statement went on to say that the change made in the summer of 2016 was that the admissions office stopped its practice of conducting an additional review for applicants of color not initially recommended for admission. He also stated that he was directing the admissions team to reinstitute that additional review.

So what’s the significance of that statement? The key word may be "official." Just because there have been no official changes doesn’t mean that there haven’t been changes, even significant changes, in practice. The reinforcement of the College of Charleston’s commitment to diversity is important, because the college, like a lot of Southern institutions, has a history that has not always been welcoming to students of color, and there are concerns on campus that the news stories about the policy change might suggest a return to that history.

But what about the policy itself? What exactly does the "additional review" consist of, and does it meet the Supreme Court’s guidance for the appropriate use of race? The court has consistently held that race can be considered as one factor among many. Does an additional review conducted only for diversity applicants who are not admitted meet that standard?

Last week’s stories about the College of Charleston raise questions and issues that extend far beyond its campus, questions and issues that are timely as the future of affirmative action seems to be again in question due to court cases and Trump administration policy changes.

In previous cases connected to race-based affirmative action in college admission, the Supreme Court has consistently ruled that race may be considered by colleges and universities as one among many factors in a holistic admissions policy, but has increasingly tightened the justification for doing so, requiring colleges to use a "narrowly-tailored" process. In Fisher, the Supreme Court suggested that racial preferences may be used only after race-neutral plans are shown not to work, and at one point in the oral arguments Justice Anthony Kennedy asked at what point race-based affirmative action will no longer be necessary.

I think most admissions officers would argue that American troops will no longer be needed in Afghanistan and Iraq long before the day affirmative action as currently practiced will no longer be necessary to achieve diversity, and that in fact that day may not arrive in our lifetimes. I don’t want to believe that, but am willing to entertain the possibility. I am also not aware of any race-neutral alternatives that have actually worked, but also suspect that efforts to develop such programs have been at best half-hearted. That may need to change as the composition of the Supreme Court changes.

That’s why Charleston’s attempt at a Top 10 Percent program is an important laboratory. The early returns have produced nearly 40 percent diversity among the students who have enrolled through that program. It’s too early to know if that can be sustained. If a successful race-neutral program can be developed, it will come at an institution like the College of Charleston that is moderately selective or one that has open enrollment (where the only impediment to increased diversity is increased recruitment).

I understand why President Osborne felt the need to walk back Charleston’s move away from traditional affirmative action, given the college’s history and culture, but I’d like to see whether the top 10 percent can be successful in helping the College of Charleston achieve appropriate levels of diversity. That, of course, begs the question of what is appropriate. Should a public college or university mirror the state’s population in its student body? If so, Charleston has a ways to go.

It would be easy to criticize the College of Charleston for its apparent flip-flop on affirmative action, but that misses a much more important story. If it can model a race-neutral approach to achieving diversity, admissions officers around the country may "do the Charleston" just as dancers around the country did back in the 1920s.


Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher’s since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women’s basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.


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