What the Fisher Conversation Should Really Be About

As the Supreme Court begins to hear arguments about the right of colleges to consider race in admissions, it will be important for institutions to show the value of the holistic review process, argues Terri Taylor.

December 7, 2015

On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear legal arguments concerning Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin for the second time. This week also marks the end of a challenging semester with student demonstrations about the racial climate happening on campuses across the country. These two developments remind us of the importance of diversity and inclusion on campus -- and the need for colleges and universities to recommit to the hard but essential work of getting it right.

Diversity and inclusion conversations often start with admissions for two reasons. The first is simple: the question of who gets admitted to various colleges and universities is always in the public eye, thanks to the annual crop of anxious, eager applicants and their families. (More than 40 years of Supreme Court cases doesn’t hurt, either.) The second is a bit more subtle: institutions cannot achieve the educational benefits of a diverse student body without an appropriate population of students, and institutions cannot enroll that population of students without a well-designed admissions process.

But colleges and universities have not always been able to explain their admissions processes in a clear, compelling way, particularly for the broader public. Most people outside the admissions fold do not fully understand why certain students are admitted while others are not and how different factors can affect that process at various institutions. Fisher II presents one opportunity to shed new light on the practices that colleges and universities use to select their classes.

Explaining various aspects of the admissions process is challenging because there is no precise calculus for arranging a class of students that meets a host of distinct institutional interests, contains only those students who are able to succeed academically and has the strong potential to introduce all students to others from a host of backgrounds and perspectives. As a result, most selective colleges and universities rely on the professional judgment and expertise of their enrollment and admissions professionals to assemble a class using "holistic review" -- a process that emphasizes the student as a whole person.

As competition has grown in selective admissions, this kind of human judgment has become essential so that institutions don’t miss out on students who could be overlooked through mechanical processes that rely only on one or two academic factors. Holistic review helps an institution assess applicants as individuals and create an overall class of students through which it can achieve its mission.

But, like much in higher education admissions, the concept is often misunderstood among the public and policy makers. Part of the problem may be because holistic review is a bit like Thanksgiving dinner: everyone has the same basic purpose and ingredients in mind, but no one puts it together in exactly the same way. In fact, most holistic review models are home grown by the institution's own admissions office and adjusted over time as institutional goals and priorities evolve. Dozens of academic and personal factors play an important role, and some institutions emphasize some characteristics more than others, particularly in the assembly of the class. For example, a public land-grant institution seeks students from across its state; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology looks for special talent in math and science; the University of Notre Dame aims for a significant number of its students to be Catholic.

The holistic review process is structured in a variety of ways, too. Some institutions use committee review, others pair admissions officers to review each application, others use internal and external application reviewers, and many use some combination of these approaches. Institutions also use a variety of software applications and evaluation methods to assess and record admissions decisions.

This variability among institutions, however, also feeds the public perception that selective admissions is a "black box." Students, parents, guidance counselors and others only see the inputs of the process and the end results. And because those end results do not always align with their conception of fairness or merit -- particularly on the small scale of who from a particular high school was and was not admitted -- many believe that holistic review is merely a cover for colleges and universities to judge certain students differently than others. The role that race and ethnicity play in the decision-making process is of special concern.

Institutions may never be able to win a debate with a disgruntled parent about whether a particular applicant should or should not have gotten in, but they can be more transparent about how the admission process works and why they value a variety student backgrounds, experiences and interests -- including but not limited to race and ethnicity.

My own work with many institutions has shown me that the opacity of the admissions process does not mean that they are actively skirting legal requirements. In fact, I've seen several examples of institutions being more cautious about the use of race in admissions decision than the Supreme Court needs them to be. I have found that colleges and universities share a few common principles regarding holistic review. For example, institutions using holistic review assess applicants individually to understand the distinctive abilities, experiences and perspectives that each can bring to campus. To enhance applications and get to know each student better, admissions offices actively encourage students to tell their personal stories. It is impossible to predict exactly what makes any single applicant unique, so institutions must allow themselves to take all facets of a student's background, perspectives and interests into account.

Among the constellation of potential factors, race or ethnicity may enhance how an applicant represents himself or how she explains her perspective on the world. Moreover, race -- like income, geography or parents' education levels -- may also help admissions officers understand the context in which a student has grown up. As a result, for many institutions, holistic review without the option to consider race is not really holistic review.

The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights recently evaluated Princeton University's holistic review process, providing a good example of what this looks like in practice. As the department observed in its findings letter:

“Here, OCR found that during the university’s admissions process, an applicant’s race and national origin -- if he or she offered that information -- may or may not be considered, depending upon whether that information provides further context about an individual applicant. For example, an admissions officer might consider how race may have figured in the context of where a person was born, where a person grew up and where he or she had gone to school. Race and national origin may also be considered if an applicant brings up those subjects in his or her essay. However, OCR found no evidence of the university giving an automatic 'plus' for identifying as a particular race or national origin; nor did OCR find evidence of applicants given an automatic 'minus' for belonging to a particular race or national origin. OCR also found no evidence of the university using a fixed formula to weigh an applicant’s race or national origin.”

OCR also noted with approval that Princeton's enrollment leaders and legal counsel annually train the admissions staff on the appropriate use of race in the decision-making process and annually review whether the use of race continues to be necessary to meet Princeton's educational goals. And they have been vocal about the importance that a diverse student body plays in the success of the overall institution and the students it serves. Other institutions should emulate such practices.

In its landmark decision on gay marriage in June, the Supreme Court recognized that “liberties extend to certain personal choices central to individual dignity and autonomy, including intimate choices that define personal identity and beliefs.” It is not too much of a stretch to connect this idea with what happens in the admissions process. After all, human identity is made up of constellation of factors; considering all of them enables an admissions decision that is both educationally sound and consistent with federal law. An application process that does not allow for consideration of the full constellation would reduce its respect for the dignity of at least some students who apply.

As the court considers Fisher again, understanding the details of the admissions process and its role in helping institutions achieve their missions will be essential. Of course, the specifics of the admissions process at the University of Texas matter, but it will also be important to show the value of holistic review and how it varies considerably among institutions. More than a hundred colleges, universities and national organizations participated in amicus briefs (available here) to the Supreme Court in this round of Fisher to explain this process in detail, both as a general concept and in its specific application in different institutional contexts.

More broadly, colleges must do a better job of explaining to their key constituencies and the public what holistic review is and how it works, how diversity relates to their mission, and many other fundamental concepts. As part of that, institutional leaders should consider the following questions:

  • Does the institution define "diversity" clearly and broadly? Does that definition include all student backgrounds, perspectives and interests that it values?
  • Is the definition clearly reflected in a mission statement, diversity policy statement or other high-level document? Has it been approved by the institution's leadership and faculty?
  • Does the institution's holistic review process clearly reflect and support that broad definition?
  • Is that link between the review process and the institution’s diversity policy present in admissions manuals, training materials and communications efforts, both internal and external?
  • Does the institution work to open the "black box" of holistic review for students, parents and others to the extent feasible?
  • Do institutional and enrollment leaders speak about admissions successes in terms of meeting diversity goals -- not only average test scores and GPAs?
  • Do students, faculty, parents, alumni, donors and other constituents understand that their institution's excellence relies in part on the rich diversity that students bring to campus?
  • Does the institution actively evaluate its success on diversity goals in admissions and on the campus?
  • How do these efforts inform institutional resource allocation and decision making?
  • How is the admissions office's deep knowledge of admitted students shared with student and academic affairs offices to help them better serve enrolled students?

Answering these questions will require leaders to look beyond the admissions process. After all, admitting and enrolling a strong, diverse class is only the first step toward the actual achievement of an institution's diversity and inclusion goals. Learning from difference does not happen magically, and it’s not enough for students simply to see difference represented among their peers. Students must have meaningful opportunities to interact and learn from each other in the classroom and beyond.

Such learning experiences can be difficult, and the benefits of a changed perspective and opened mind may take years to be realized. But those benefits -- as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor observed when the court considered the matter of race in admissions in 2003's Grutter v. Bollinger -- are “substantial” and “real.” In October, a national Purdue-Gallup study found that students who had interacted regularly with diverse peers in college were 2.2 times more likely to believe that their degree was worth the cost after graduation.

Indeed, from the beginning, UT has claimed achieving the educational benefits of diversity as its "compelling interest" that justifies its limited use of race in admissions -- just as the University of Michigan Law School argued successfully in Grutter. To assess whether those goals were being met, UT looked at various indicators, including not only enrollment trends but also evidence of racial isolation and campus climate (including faculty and student feedback), and other data including how the educational benefits of diversity were experienced in the classroom.

Three red flags emerged: 1) a lack of socioeconomic diversity within racial minority groups, 2) an absence of racial minority students in smaller, discussion-oriented classrooms and 3) a drop in minority enrollment (especially among African-American students), which led to increased racial isolation for those groups. These suggested that UT had not yet reached its diversity goals and that its limited use of race in admissions continued to be justified.

In the second round of the Fisher case, the Supreme Court will again be asked to consider those indicators, given a change in Abigail Fisher's litigation strategy, particularly in her characterization of UT’s process and underlying goals. In the coming round of litigation, Fisher herself argues that the three indicators were UT's overarching goals, not simply indicators by which UT considered whether its broader goal of achieving the educational benefits of diversity for all students was being met.

In other words, she argues that UT was not seeking the educational benefits of diversity through its race-conscious admissions policy but rather the more narrow interests of "diversity within diversity," classroom diversity and reducing racial isolation. And, to the plaintiff, none of these interests rises to the level of necessity that the court demands. This line of argument did not appear in Abigail Fisher's arguments in Fisher I back in 2012-13, and it will be interesting to see how the court untangles the facts and legal arguments that the two sides are presenting.

We won't have a resolution of Fisher until the decision comes down sometime in the first half of 2016. In the meantime, however, colleges and universities should not simply sit on their hands and wait for the court’s instructions. Institutions should carefully consider their admissions processes and how they communicate them. Addressing the questions previously raised in pursuit of a more dynamic, diverse and inclusive campus environment can be a positive step forward for all institutions, regardless of how the court decides Fisher.

And colleges and universities must also take other steps beyond just admitting a diverse class. As the events on multiple campuses over the past several weeks have demonstrated, students are demanding that administrators take concrete actions to improve campus life for all students, particularly those who are underrepresented. They are asking institutions not only to consider the positive benefits of diversity, but also the harms that can come from a lack of diversity and inclusion -- including “tokenism,” racial isolation and fewer opportunities to combat stereotypes. Changing the institutional culture and environment is admittedly very hard work for institutions and students alike, but that work is worth doing for the benefits that can result for students while they are on the campus and after they graduate.

Such efforts will show the seriousness of purpose behind an institution’s diversity goals -- and that the achievement of these goals depends not only on the consideration of race in the admissions process but also much more. Even more important, they will show students, faculty, leaders and the broader community that all students matter and are valued -- and that excellence in higher education depends on the challenges and lessons that flow from diversity and learning to appreciate our differences.


Terri Taylor is a policy and legal advisor with EducationCounsel LLC. She co-authored the amicus brief submitted by the College Board, American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, Law School Admissions Council and National Association for College Admissions Counseling to the Supreme Court in Fisher II and helps lead the College Board's Access and Diversity Collaborative.


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