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In affirmative action ruling, a glimmer of hope for ‘holistic admissions’

Affirmative action ban: A look at the political fallout
Political reporter James Pindell joins Segun Oduolowu to discuss the political fallout of the SCOTUS affirmative action ban.

Leaders of selective colleges and universities expressed disappointment, but not surprise, over the Supreme Court’s decision to end affirmative action in the admissions process Thursday.

But there was at least one glimmer of hope for advocates of diversity and inclusion on college campuses: the ruling decision leaves intact an approach known as holistic college admissions, which is the review process most selective colleges use to consider applicants’ unique lives and personal experiences beyond academic achievements.

In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that colleges and universities “can continue to consider socioeconomic diversity” and continue recruiting students who are the first in their families to attend college, “or who speak multiple languages,” for example. It also means that prospective students can talk about how race has impacted or shaped their life experiences and how those experiences give the person a “unique ability to contribute to the university,” according to the decision.

That is an important factor, said Vincent Rougeau, president of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester.


”Holistic review matters,” Rougeau, Holy Cross’s first Black leader, said in an interview. “I think it will be interesting to see how applicants tell us about the role of race, class and ethnicity in their own lives, and how that will allow us to create a community here that reflects the rich tapestry of our society.”

The college will have to work harder than ever to ensure it is attracting diverse applicants who might be deterred from applying to selective private colleges following the end of affirmative action. Previous bans in California and Michigan led to dramatic declines in Black and Hispanic students, so selective colleges will now have their work cut out to avoid the same fate.

“The onus is now on us as higher education institutions to break down those structural barriers that we know exist for students of color, low-income and first-generation students,” Rougeau said.


Still, the holistic review process is one tool that colleges can continue to rely on to admit students of all backgrounds.

”I suppose what Justice Roberts is saying is that it is the applicant’s choice [to share how race has shaped their life experiences,]” Rougeau said. “The applicant is providing this information as an assessment of their own life. It’s not the college saying, ‘We want you to check that box,” and categorize students that way.”

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Hilary Burns can be reached at Follow her @Hilarysburns.