Recent news headlines on college admissions have reinforced pressing questions around who gains the opportunity to attend selective colleges and universities, and how such opportunities are granted. The Varsity Blues scandal has perpetuated a narrative that elite colleges and universities are only for a privileged few, and it has raised important questions about how institutions ensure a principled and trustworthy process for selecting an incoming class.
Meanwhile, there’s another legal case involving college admissions that will be back in the public eye after a bit of a hiatus -- the one involving Harvard University’s race-conscious admissions process. Anytime now, U.S. District Judge Allison D. Burroughs will issue a ruling that could trigger a new march to the U.S. Supreme Court and a fresh re-examination of the autonomy of our country’s colleges and universities and their ability to construct diverse and inclusive campuses.
The new attack on race-conscious admissions in Boston comes less than three years after the high court reaffirmed in June 2016, for the fourth time in four decades, that the educational benefit of a diverse student body is a compelling governmental interest that can justify the narrowly tailored consideration of race as one factor in a holistic admissions process.
It’s no secret that admission to the most selective colleges and universities involves a scarce commodity. It might be tempting to view the Varsity Blues scandal and the legal challenge to Harvard’s holistic admissions approach as examples of why it would be better if these schools did away with admissions discretion altogether, and instead admitted each new class based solely on grades and test scores. However, with an overabundance of fully qualified applicants every year, grades and test scores alone don’t and can’t identify who to admit. What’s more, the schools and their students would be worse off if they could.
The difficulty of molding an incoming class at the most selective institutions is matched only by its importance. Admissions officers at these schools engage in handicraft, constructing a class holistically as they seek the critical educational benefits that coalesce from the minds, voices, passions and hearts of diverse students who live, learn, compete, debate, sing, play, struggle and succeed with each other.
It is therefore important to stress one thing about the Harvard case and the role race is permitted to play in the admissions process: however Judge Burroughs rules, it will not change the law of the land. Three years ago the Supreme Court again said that “a university may institute a race-conscious admissions program as a means of obtaining ‘the educational benefits that flow from student body diversity,’” and this will remain the case unless, and until, the high court overturns its own precedent.
Thus, absent state-imposed inhibitions on their public institutions, colleges and universities will be able to continue assembling a diverse student body in accordance with their missions and under the standards set out by the high court, though they should continue to assess their own processes to ensure they align with those standards. As the Supreme Court noted in Fisher II, “It is the university’s ongoing obligation to engage in constant deliberation and continued reflection regarding its admissions policies, and it must tailor its approach in light of changing circumstances, ensuring that race plays no greater role than is necessary to meet its compelling interest.” In aid of that, Judge Burroughs’s opinion is sure to be carefully parsed and examined, even as the losing party almost assuredly appeals the ruling.
Meanwhile, it is safe to assume that opponents of race-conscious admissions will soldier on in their ongoing challenge to student diversity as a compelling government interest, an issue taken up by the Trump administration. Last July, just a few weeks before the American Council on Education and 36 other higher education associations submitted an amicus brief in support of Harvard, the Department of Education revoked federal guidance on race-conscious admissions practices issued by the Obama administration, in favor of a singular preference for race-neutral methods.
As we noted when the Supreme Court issued its 2016 race-conscious admissions decision in the Fisher II case involving the University of Texas at Austin, higher education institutions can and do pursue strategies for building diverse and inclusive campuses that are both race conscious and race neutral -- it is not an either-or proposition. Research conducted by ACE makes it clear that institutions that consider race as one factor in admissions decisions use other race-conscious and race-neutral diversity strategies more often, and find them more effective, than institutions that only use race-neutral strategies.
Moreover, we know the diversity needle is moving in the right direction. There are more students of color entering higher education than at any time in American history. A full 45 percent of America’s undergraduate student body is nonwhite. However, it is also the case that black, Latinx and Native American students disproportionately enroll at the nation’s least selective and often underresourced colleges.
Certainly, students enter and experience our country’s varied colleges and universities differently given academic readiness, family background and life stage, but we should be concerned about educational opportunities at public flagships and elite private institutions distributing along racial and ethnic lines. As recent history has shown us, when selective colleges lose the tool to consider race as one factor in the admissions process, diversity dramatically declines, the educational experience on those campuses is impacted and opportunity gaps widen.
Losing the ability to consider race sends another message: that race and racial diversity in all corners of society do not matter. Yet they absolutely do. Racial diversity fuels educational quality and innovation, something the private sector knows full well and has advocated for. Working and learning across differences is a 21st-century requirement for a nation that is growing more diverse by the year. Equally important, race remains a prevailing factor in students’ life experiences and many educational outcomes.
Indeed, the educational barriers facing individuals and communities of color are tied to long-standing, systemic conditions. Racially segregated schooling, limited access to rigorous precollege curricula, poor college counseling, widening wealth gaps and other societal and historical forces all contribute to inequities in college access for too many students of color.
Even at the other end, upon leaving college, graduates face a race-conscious reality. For example, ACE’s recent study on race and ethnicity in higher education found that about one-third of black bachelor’s degree recipients accumulated $40,000 or more in debt, compared with just 18 percent of students over all. Such disproportionate debt levels for black students are present regardless of income.
While higher education alone cannot reverse these systemic trends, it has a unique role and societal responsibility to open doors, create opportunity and contribute to upward intergenerational mobility. This is a charge for the whole of higher education -- highly selective and open access alike -- and not one or the other. What we strive for in America, and higher education specifically, is to make the best opportunities available to as many people as possible. That can happen at a selective institution that truly values the educational benefits that derive from a diverse student body and considers race as one factor in admissions, and it can happen at an institution that accepts all applicants -- but it must happen in both places.
Taking away the tools and the autonomy for colleges to enroll a diverse student body would be a damaging development. That won’t happen in the Harvard case, and we believe the Supreme Court will continue in the years to come to abide by four decades of precedent. ACE will strongly advocate for that outcome if this case eventually is heard by the high court.
What the Harvard decision likely will do is serve as another national touchstone for discussing race in American higher education. In that context, we must acknowledge and address the socioeconomic and racial inequities well illustrated by the Varsity Blues scandal, and continue unwavering support for colleges’ and universities’ recognition and embrace of the educational value of a diverse student body.