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A student with a hat and a sign that says “affirmative action yes” in a crowd

The Supreme Court’s affirmative action decisions caused tremors throughout higher ed. Applicant behavior, though, was unaffected this cycle.

Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Last summer’s Supreme Court decision striking down affirmative action may have been a seismic event in the recent history of college admissions, but it hasn’t had much effect on applicants’ decision-making, according to a new study from Common App.

The report found that the volume of applications by race did not increase or decrease more than usual from 2022–23 to 2023–24. Applications from Latinx students rose 10 percent, for instance, which is in line with the past few years—and with recent demographic trends. Black students submitted 9 percent more applications than last year, holding steady as well. The only slight deviation was for white and Asian students, both of whom submitted 1 percent more applications than last cycle, flattening what had been a relatively upward trend.

The number of applicants from racial minority groups applying to at least one highly selective institution—which Common App defines as having an acceptance rate of 25 percent or less—did not change significantly, either. In line with trends since 2020, the percentage of students applying to selective institutions from both underrepresented minority groups (URM) (32.4) and non-URM groups (37.9) declined slightly this cycle.

“We don’t see any meaningful changes, and most of the slight deviations from trend don’t seem to rise above what could reasonably be considered noise,” said Brian Kim, Common App’s director of data science and research.

Common App, which has asked applicants for their demographic information for years, continued doing so even after the Supreme Court decision, though colleges were allowed to opt-out of seeing the responses. Student responses to demographic questions were used to gather data on applicant behavior pre– and post–affirmative action.

The full picture of the 2023–24 application cycle tells a slightly different story than Common App’s preliminary report on early applications, released in January, which showed a 12 percent increase in applications from underrepresented minority students. That increase is reflected in today’s report, though in the end, URM applicant volume increased by only 9 percent. But that’s in line with changing demographics, and Kim said it would be “hard to attribute any of that to the SCOTUS decision.”

How Surprising?

The last major admissions shake-up came in 2020, when the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the vast majority of colleges to adopt test-optional policies. That caused a major deviation in applicant behavior, with underrepresented minorities applying at much higher rates to many more colleges than in previous years, according to Common App datasets.

By contrast, the impact of the affirmative action decision appears surprisingly muted. Even Kim, who went into the research open-minded, said he expected to see some kind of an effect on applicant behavior.

“The fact that we didn’t was certainly a surprise to me,” he said.

It also contradicts research on applicant behavior in states that outlawed affirmative action in the past. After Proposition 209 banned race-conscious admissions in California in 1996, minority applicants to the most selective University of California campuses fell dramatically, according to a 2020 report by Zachary Bleemer, now an economics professor at Princeton.

“Ending affirmative action caused UC’s 10,000 annual underrepresented minority (URM) freshman applicants to cascade into lower-quality public and private universities,” Bleemer wrote. “Prop 209 also deterred thousands of qualified URM students from applying to any UC campus.”

Bleemer told Inside Higher Ed he wasn’t entirely surprised by the national trends revealed in the Common App findings. Whereas underrepresented students in California were able to turn to private institutions that could still consider race in admissions—15 percent of applicants to the system disappeared practically overnight in 1996—the fact that the ban now applies to every university in the country means there’s no value in applying to one institution over another.

“A lot of students may feel like, if the advantage is disappearing everywhere, then they have little to lose applying to any specific school,” he said. “There’s no reason to divert somewhere else.”

What Bleemer is most interested in are the highly selective public universities in states that haven’t banned affirmative action—the University of Virginia, for instance, or the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He wonders if they might see a phenomenon similar to what UCLA and Berkeley saw in 1996, whereby underrepresented students become more likely to pivot to less selective state schools.

“What we do know is that at the state level, when these bans were instituted, they had a significant effect on highly selective flagships,” he said. “Will that be true nationally, too?”

Waiting on Enrollments

By far the more eagerly anticipated data drop is the demographic picture of the incoming class of 2028, which should begin to emerge in the next few months. In the meantime, the Common App report seems to suggest that the doomsaying around the Supreme Court decision’s impact on college access could be overblown.

“I’m heartened that it did not seem to be that … underrepresented students were being dissuaded from applying,” said Common App CEO Jenny Rickard.

But Bleemer cautioned against extrapolating any enrollment trends from the application data, which he said has “no impact on enrollment outcomes” and offers only a suggestive glimpse at what demographics for the fall’s incoming class might look like.

Still, he said the lack of a change in application trends is encouraging. He estimates that of the steep 40 percent drop in minority enrollment at UC Berkeley after Prop 209 passed, about a third was due to underrepresented applicants feeling discouraged from applying in the first place.

When the demographics of the incoming fall class are finally available, it may be hard to pin any changes on the demise of affirmative action, given that the disastrous rollout of the new Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA) will likely have its own outsized impact on underrepresented minority enrollments.

“The implications of FAFSA submissions being down are just as significant, maybe more so,” Rickard said. “It’s going to be really hard to understand which factors are playing a bigger role: admissions decisions or financial aid challenges.”

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