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Colleges scramble to prepare for possible end of affirmative action

Prospective students, parents, and others took a campus tour at MIT.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

For decades, affirmative action has served as an essential tool for colleges to increase diversity on campus. Now, with the Supreme Court seemingly poised to ban the practice, higher education leaders are scrambling to mitigate the fallout and come up with strategies to accomplish diversity goals.

College officials are wary of sharing detailed plans ahead of the expected ruling from the conservative-leaning court in the coming months, often at the guidance of lawyers. But the officials and admissions consultants say universities are seeking to strengthen relationships with community colleges and high schools in underserved areas to reach prospective students, while also rethinking practices that largely benefit affluent, white students.


In short, colleges are hoping to send a message that their doors are open to students of all backgrounds, regardless of how the court decides, and that there will be supportive communities awaiting them, experts said.

Middlebury College, for its part, is gathering research and data related to how competitive public colleges have pursued diversity in the nine states that bar affirmative action in college admissions, said Nicole Curvin, dean of admissions at the Vermont school.

“We’re moving into a new territory, but it doesn’t mean that there aren’t opportunities for us,” Curvin said. The outreach, she said, is helping Middlebury ”get creative and thoughtful about building on the work that we’ve already done.”

Some university leaders are doubling down on their public commitments to diversity ahead of the court decision, worried that students of color won’t apply if affirmative action ends.

“A fear is that underrepresented students start feeling that their chances of being admitted to a school like ours diminish, [which] would be the most unfortunate thing that could come out of this,” said Jim Roche, vice provost for enrollment management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “We have to continue to let people know that everybody’s welcome here.”


Others are working together. As the justices deliberate the admissions case, 16 selective colleges, including Yale, MIT, Colby, and Brown, joined forces to help reach more students living in rural communities who may not have access to Advanced Placement courses and who lack guidance on post-high school options.

The effort, which includes hiring staff focused on reaching rural students and flying in students for campus tours, is an example of colleges working to strengthen recruitment relationships outside of affluent suburban and private high schools.

“Our aim is to enroll as broadly diverse a student body as we can because it makes the education here better,” said Stuart Schmill, MIT’s dean of admissions and student financial services. “We are excited to join this network because we can reach more students collectively than we can individually.”

Many selective colleges say race is one of many factors considered in the admissions process. Without that tool, admission consultants and researchers say it will be difficult to maintain campus diversity without drastic changes.

That has been the case in California, where a 1996 state proposition barred the use of race-conscious admissions practices at public universities. In a court filing in the current challenge, the University of California said admissions by underrepresented groups at its most competitive campuses dropped by 50 percent or more following the ban. The numbers have improved somewhat in recent years as the system sought “wide-ranging, race-neutral measures” to recruit diverse students, though the populations of Black, Latino, and Native American students still lag.


“UC’s decades-long experience with race-neutral approaches demonstrates that highly competitive universities may not be able to achieve the benefits of student body diversity through race-neutral measures alone,” Cal officials wrote in the court filing.

The case before the nation’s high court centers on complaints filed by the nonprofit group Students for Fair Admissions against Harvard and the University of North Carolina. The group argues that the colleges’ admissions processes that consider race are unfair and lead to stereotyping and discrimination. Many expect the justices to reverse a 2016 decision resulting from Fisher v. the University of Texas at Austin, which upheld the limited use of race in admissions.

To boost their chances of attracting diverse students through race-neutral means, college leaders need to reconsider how they approach lower-income families, consultants said.

The nation’s wealthiest universities, which have more ability to lower the cost of attendance for low-income students, will be better positioned to attract underrepresented students than competitors, said Rob Bielby, managing director at the higher education practice of consulting firm Huron. Still, high sticker prices can dissuade students from applying, so being clear about how much aid a school can offer is critical, experts said.

“If you’re sending the same communication pieces that you’ve been sending to high-income families and upper-middle-income families that are primarily white, then you’re probably not presenting your brand in the best way to engage with diverse populations,” Bielby said.

Colleges are also evaluating what programs and practices could be at risk, including scholarships for students of a specific race, said Madeleine Rhyneer, who leads enrollment consulting at EAB.


“Students from low-income groups worry most about cost,” Rhyneer said. “It’s the first thing they consider, so schools need to be clear about financial aid and meeting need.”

The University of Pennsylvania has spent about 18 months building a free online course for high school students wanting to learn more about post-high school options and the college admissions process.

“While I think it is probably useful for any students looking to go to college, it’s really designed for students who would be less likely to have people around them who are well versed in college,” said Whitney Soule, dean of admissions.

Penn also wants prospective applicants to know it’s open to students of all backgrounds, she said.

“The way that we do our work will be modified to make sure that we’re within the bounds [of the law], but we will not be diminishing the message around how important diversity is for the educational experience here,” Soule said.

Still, it’s important that college officials don’t think statements in support of diversity are enough, said Michele Siqueiros, president of the nonprofit Campaign for College Opportunity in California. She said colleges need to make changes and reconsider whether all of their practices align with institutional goals.

“We still have colleges that use legacy preferences,” Siqueiros said. “How are you going to eliminate practices that have proven to be inequitable like legacy admissions? How are you going to look at admissions in a more holistic fashion to really measure the potential talent of students and not overly rely on test scores or AP classes that may not be offered everywhere?”


Colleges also have work to do overcoming reputations of “whiteness” and wealth, said Bielby, the Huron consultant. It will take time to earn trust in communities that have felt historically excluded from elite campuses.

“Even if [diverse students] have been admitted and offered excellent scholarships, they question whether or not they’re going to fit and whether that’s going to be a good experience for them,” Bielby said. “This isn’t just about admission — it’s also about retention.”

Hilary Burns can be reached at hilary.burns@globe.com. Follow her @Hilarysburns.