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Today marks the conclusion of Black History Month, which pays tribute to the contributions African Americans have made to the greatness of our nation, including but not limited to the struggles to realize that greatness. Access to higher education is an essential chapter of Black history, from the achingly slow opening of a handful of campuses to Black students in the 19th century and the creation of historically Black colleges and universities to the ongoing fight for desegregation and the rise of the Black Campus Movement and African American studies. The current political attacks on that field of study, declining percentages of Black students enrolled at flagship universities and highly selective public institutions, and the assault on race-conscious admission practices in the cases currently under consideration by the Supreme Court remind us that this history and the fight for fair access are far from over.
One of the most powerful weapons in that fight is the truth, which is why it is long past time for the U.S. Department of Education to create greater transparency around the college admissions process and institutional practices that harm diversity. To this end, a coalition of civil rights organizations, higher education advocacy groups and academic researchers sent a letter to Secretary of Education Miguel A. Cardona and Under Secretary James Kvaal earlier this month calling on the department to take three concrete steps to increase transparency around race and college admissions.
One of the functions of the Department of Education is to gather information annually from every college, university and technical and vocational institution that participates in the federal student financial aid programs through the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). All institutions of higher education (IHEs) that participate in federal student aid programs report data on a range of topics, including enrollment, graduation rates, finances, prices and financial aid. These data are shared through the College Navigator website and through the IPEDS Data Center.
Currently, the Department of Education collects data on the number of applications, admissions and enrollments at institutions of higher education that do not have open enrollment policies. It disaggregates those data by gender, but it does not do the same for race and ethnicity for applications or admissions, even though almost all colleges ask applicants to identify their race and ethnicity.
What that means is that we can only see the end result of the college admissions process at most institutions, rather than the process that got them there. IPEDS can tell us, for instance, that just 7 percent of undergraduates at the University of Georgia identify as Black, despite the fact that Black people make up 33 percent of the state’s population. But IPEDS cannot tell us how many Black applicants there were to the state’s flagship, how many of those applicants were admitted or how many of those who were admitted enrolled. All those numbers matter because they speak to the whole ecosystem of college admissions, including college advising, recruitment strategies, campus climate, admissions officers’ decisions and students’ own decisions to attend.
IPEDS also cannot tell us how many students of color applied or were admitted through University of Georgia’s early-action program, which requires submission of an application by Oct. 15. There is evidence that students who attend independent high schools and those who come from wealthy homes are much more likely than their peers to apply to college early. Some colleges, however, might use early-application programs to recruit underrepresented students. We cannot be sure about the impact because the Department of Education collects no data on early-decision or early-action programs.
Finally, IPEDS does not collect data on how many applicants, admits or enrolled students are the children of alumni. Starting this year, the Department of Education asks colleges to indicate whether they consider legacy status in the admissions process, but acknowledging it is a factor means little without knowing its impact. We have known for decades that Harvard University provides an advantage to legacies in its application process, but it took the Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) lawsuit now pending before the Supreme Court to reveal just how big that advantage is: drawing on data made public in the lawsuit, researchers have estimated that a typical white applicant’s chance of admission to Harvard would increase fivefold if he or she held legacy status. Nearly 70 percent of Harvard applicants with legacy status are white.
Lawsuits are a very expensive way to achieve transparency in college admissions. A much better method is for the Department of Education to use its authority, granted by the Education Sciences Reform Act of 2002’s directive to “collect, report, analyze and disseminate statistical data related to the condition and progress of postsecondary education, including access to and opportunity for postsecondary education,” to expand its IPEDS data collection to include the following:
- Racial and ethnic demographic data for applicants and admits, not just enrollments.
- For those IHEs that consider an alumni relation in their admissions process, the number of applications, admission offers and enrollments that fall under this category, disaggregated by race, ethnicity, gender and, when possible, socioeconomic status.
- Whether an IHE offers an early-decision and/or early-action plan as part of its admissions process and, if it does, the number of applications, admission offers and enrollments that fall under this category, disaggregated by race, ethnicity, gender and, when possible, socioeconomic status.
This transparency around college admissions is long overdue, but it will become even more urgent if Harvard loses its case and the Supreme Court narrows or bans the consideration of race in college admissions. Disaggregated data will be absolutely essential if we are to measure the impact that the decision will have on campus diversity. Researchers have shown that ending race-conscious admissions in California and Texas led to declines in applications from, admissions of and enrollments by Black, Hispanic and Native American students. Scholars will not be able to replicate this research at the national level, however, if the Supreme Court rules in favor of SFFA, as many predict it will, because the data will not be available for private institutions and in many states.
Who could oppose this call for transparency? Underresourced institutions should, of course, be given time and support to ensure they have the ability to comply with existing and additional data-reporting requirements. The request for expanded federal data collection does not ask colleges to drop legacy preferences or early-admissions programs. It simply asks them to take ownership of their admissions process and not hide their choices away. At a moment when forces are gathering to censor African American voices and stories on campuses and in high schools, to support greater transparency in admissions is to stand on the side of truth and on the right side of history.