Alarmed that the US Supreme Court could strike down affirmative action next year, higher education leaders and thinkers have begun to strategize: How can they continue diversifying elite college campuses without using race as a factor in admissions?
The court is poised to hear two cases this fall about the use of race in selective college admissions, including one focused on Harvard’s admissions policy. The court’s rightward shift, and the conservative majority’s recently leaked draft opinion in an abortion case, which signaled its willingness to overturn established precedent, suggests to many observers that the end of affirmative action may be imminent.
But even as they’ve expressed concern that such a decision could reverse decades of effort to break down systemic barriers blocking marginalized groups from attending elite institutions, higher education leaders have reaffirmed their commitment to diversity.
“Regardless of the court’s decision, we will continue to advance our diversity, equity, and inclusion goals,” said Anthony Monaco, president of Tufts University who is departing next year. “Diversity is vital to creating a climate that encourages learning both in and outside of the classroom, fosters respectful conversations across differences, and provides all our students with transformational experiences.”
The Globe reached out to many university presidents and admissions officers for this story. Most declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation and a concern that anything they said could hurt their interests in the case. But experts in admissions and leaders of professional associations who are in close contact with university officials explained the thinking among that group.
Admissions experts said although there is no direct substitute for race, other factors and methods can help to admit people from diverse backgrounds — including some strategies that the complainants in the case, Students for Fair Admissions, have suggested as “race-neutral” alternatives.
Institutions can consider geographic diversity, for instance; they can also make a more concerted effort to recruit from a greater number of high schools. And they can seek out talented students at places they spend time outside school, such as at churches and community centers.
“It’s not that this is going to be in lieu of race, but I think colleges will still have an opportunity to diversify their funnels,” said Angel Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, which is working with other organizations on an amicus brief in the case, arguing in favor of using race. “A lot of it starts with, how do you get students to even apply and come to the door?”
Pérez said using these kinds of strategies have helped public institutions in California, which have not been allowed to consider race since 1996, when voters there passed a ballot measure that effectively outlawed affirmative action.
The Supreme Court is likely to hear arguments this fall and would likely issue a decision that would affect the class entering college in the fall of 2024.
Both cases the court will hear — one against Harvard, the other against the University of North Carolina — were brought by Students for Fair Admissions, which alleges that the universities’ admissions policies discriminate against Asian American and white applicants.
The Harvard case, which was first filed in 2014, accuses that university of discriminating against Asian American students and effectively capping the number who are admitted every year. Harvard has denied the claims and said race-conscious admissions policies are legal. Two lower federal courts have sided with Harvard.
Students for Fair Admissions accuses the University of North Carolina of giving preference to Black, Hispanic, and Native American students over white and Asian ones. Last fall, a federal district court judge also sided with UNC.
Edward Blum, founder of Students for Fair Admissions, said his representatives have argued in court in both cases that the universities failed to consider an array of race-neutral alternatives similar to the ones experts are now suggesting as workarounds. Those include socioeconomic status, geographic diversity, eliminating preference for early action and legacy admissions, increasing financial aid, increasing the admission of community college transfers, and recruiting more broadly.
The cases come as most higher education institutions are working harder than ever to reduce barriers to admissions for students of color and other underrepresented groups, including first-generation and low-income students.
Elite universities have more at stake in this case, experts said, because they are so selective. Most colleges in this country are open-access, meaning nearly everyone is accepted.
The court is far more conservative now than in 2016, the last time it heard an affirmative action case and upheld the use of race as a factor in admissions.
Beth Donaldson, an admissions consultant at the enrollment management firm EAB, said that in addition to working with community-based organizations and community colleges to bolster the pipeline of qualified students from diverse backgrounds, colleges can take other steps to bring in diverse talent.
Hosting summer academies and dual enrollment programs with local high schools is another strategy, she said in an e-mailed statement. Relaxing testing requirements can also attract students of color, she said.
Over the last two years, many schools dropped their requirement that students submit standardized test scores, initially because of difficulty accessing tests during the pandemic. Because getting rid of testing greatly diversified applicant pools, many schools including Harvard have extended the policy or made it permanent. MIT reinstated it, saying the SAT/ACT helps them predict which students will be successful, and those tests are more accessible than others to students of all socioeconomic backgrounds.
A recent EAB survey of nearly 5,000 students showed that Black and Hispanic/Latinx students were much more likely than their white or Asian counterparts to report that a school’s testing policy drove their application decision, Donaldson noted.
California and other states that don’t allow consideration of race in admissions have also looked to policies like the Top 10 Percent Law, a Texas law that guarantees admission to all students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their class.
But such policies may not be remedies. Since 1996, when the ban on considering race in admissions in the California State University system was enacted, the share of Black and Native American students has fallen there, according to EdSource.
A 2020 study by the University of California found that the 1996 ban caused a decline systemwide in underrepresented groups’ enrollment by at least 12 percent, though the system has worked since then to find other ways to increase diversity.
And there are wide gaps between the racial breakdown of California’s high school graduates and that of its university system’s first-year students. There is a double-digit difference, for example, between the percentage of Latino high school graduates in 2019 (52 percent) and the share of Latino students in the 2019 state university system’s freshman class (29 percent.)
At the same time, according to EdSource, Asians at University of California make up triple their share of high school graduates. White students are slightly below their share of high school graduates.
Although there is no proxy for race, said Paulette Granberry Russell, president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, the looming Supreme Court cases should remind institutions that they should be constantly reexamining whether their admissions practices serve all students equally.
“It would behoove institutions to begin their work now. This is not the time to wait for a court decision,” she said.
The timing of the court’s decision to accept this case is disheartening, said Perez, of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. During the pandemic, and especially following the murder of George Floyd, many colleges, including some top schools, thought deeply about ways they contribute to systemic racism and economic inequality in this country, he said.
For the court to now accept this case that could set back attempts to break down barriers to achievement in this country is disappointing, he said. Often college is the first time that students are forced to engage with others who are different from them; more homogenous campuses simply don’t challenge students to learn about, and from, one another as much.
“I just worry, we are so divided in this country, could this further divide us?” he said.