Diversity on college campuses benefits students. Students learn from one another, and interactions break down stereotypes and prepare students to enter the workplace. Admitting historically underserved — yet still qualified — populations to top colleges gives those students a better chance at securing a good job.
There is no equal substitute for race-based affirmative action to increase racial diversity on campus. Yet on Thursday, the US Supreme Court ruled that admissions policies that considered race at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina violate the Equal Protection clause of the US Constitution. Although the majority portrayed its decision as consistent with past rulings, the reality is that justices have broken with precedent that permitted narrow consideration of race to achieve classroom diversity. Indeed, the decision is a sweeping rebuke of race-conscious admissions that will end affirmative action in higher education nationwide.
“Many universities have for too long wrongly concluded that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned, but the color of their skin,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority of the court. “This Nation’s constitutional history does not tolerate that choice.” The court’s three liberal justices — Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ketanji Brown Jackson (who only participated in the UNC case) — dissented.
Yet, as Sotomayor wrote in her dissent, the United States today is not colorblind, and racism continues to impact people’s lives and educational opportunities. “Racial inequality runs deep to this very day” in society and in higher education, Sotomayor writes, and “Ignoring race will not equalize a society that is racially unequal.”
Within the guidelines set by this ruling, colleges must now do everything they can to ensure campuses continue to have diversity of thought, ethnicity, geography — and yes, race. This means actively recruiting from a broader pool of students while changing how they consider applicants.
Vitally, colleges can still consider a particular individual’s life experience as it relates to race. Roberts explicitly allowed this in the majority opinion, writing, “nothing prohibits universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected the applicant’s life, so long as that discussion is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability that the particular applicant can contribute to the university.” Roberts explains, “A benefit to a student who overcame racial discrimination, for example, must be tied to that student’s courage and determination.”
With the court ruling, it will now take more intentional work by campus leaders to increase racial diversity, but it is necessary. “As long as we have opportunity gaps by race, language, religion, and gender, we need to have strategies in place to reduce these gaps,” said Mary Churchill, associate dean and professor at Boston University Wheelock College of Education and Human Development.
Governor Maura Healey took steps to help students even before the court ruled, creating an Advisory Council for the Advancement of Representation in Education led by Nefertiti Walker, vice chancellor for equity and inclusion at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and expanding access to online college planning tools for high school students statewide.
The biggest impact of the ban on race-conscious admissions will be on private and selective colleges, since most public colleges and universities already attract many minority students.
There is no magic bullet to increase racial diversity in race-neutral ways. Officials at the University of Michigan and University of California both filed Supreme Court briefs saying that despite their best efforts to recruit diverse students, they had fewer Black, Native American, and Latino students after the schools were required by ballot initiatives to use race-neutral admissions.
But there are methods worth trying. The University of California targeted outreach efforts at low-income families and first-generation students; automatically admitted students based on high school academic performance and standardized tests; and implemented “holistic reviews” of applicants where factors like life experience were considered. The University of Michigan weighed whether an applicant was from a socioeconomically disadvantaged background; recruited in areas with large minority populations; offered substantial financial aid; and provided free college preparatory services in underserved school districts.
One big question is whether schools can effectively substitute socioeconomic class for race, since Black and Hispanic families tend to have lower incomes than white families.
Sean Reardon, a Stanford Graduate School of Education professor, used simulated models to find that class-based affirmative action will increase the number of lower-income students admitted but “is not an effective or efficient means to achieving racial diversity.” Reardon said an aggressive class-conscious admissions policy “can probably get you part of the way there” but would also be “prohibitively expensive” for many schools, since lower-income students require more financial aid.
A 2023 study by researchers at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce found class-conscious admissions could increase admissions of Black and Hispanic students but lower admissions of American Indian and Pacific Islander students. There is still a benefit to increasing class diversity — the Georgetown study said students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are severely underrepresented at selective colleges — but that is separate from racial diversity.
Schools should also eliminate priorities for children of alumni and donors, who, due to historic racism and wealth gaps, are more likely to be white.
But Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce, said the challenge for schools is they need to maintain those relationships to raise money to spend on less privileged students. “It’s a tension colleges grapple with, maintaining privileges for the privileged to raise the resources they need to turn around and try to claw back diversity among underrepresented student populations,” Carnevale said.
Another unique strategy, which works mainly for larger, less selective schools, is direct admissions, where a student is guaranteed admission based on factors like grades, test scores, or an arrangement between a college and school district. After a federal court banned race-based affirmative action in Texas, the state guaranteed admission to its two most selective public universities to the top 10 percent of every high school graduating class. This system relies on segregation among high schools to diversify campuses.
Daniel Klasik, associate professor at the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and other researchers found that over 18 years, Texas’s policy did not recoup the lost racial diversity, and high schools that historically were feeder schools to these campuses continued to be. Klasik said the best estimates are that a top 10 percent program recovers one-third of the racial diversity of race-conscious admissions.
One significant finding of that study, which all schools can apply, is that two programs that targeted recruiting efforts and scholarship money at particular high schools led to significant increases in attendance at the flagship campuses from those schools. “One promising way forward is to really up your outreach to the populations that you’re trying to recruit to send a message to those students that they’re still wanted on your campus and they should continue to apply,” Klasik said.
Massachusetts college officials have been preparing for this ruling.
Danielle Holley, dean at Howard University School of Law and incoming president of Mount Holyoke College, said stepped-up recruiting efforts will be vital for schools with competitive admissions. She said colleges will have to work to shape admissions around their goals and values, even if that means rethinking traditional strategies like relying on standardized test scores and legacy admissions.
Wellesley College President Paula Johnson said Wellesley has expanded virtual recruitment events, while campus recruiters are planning more trips outside New England and enhancing partnerships with organizations that work with diverse students. Wellesley accepts students without regard to ability to pay and gives significant financial aid. It is piloting making the submission of standardized test scores optional.
But Johnson said she worries a ban on race-conscious admissions will unavoidably reduce the number of minority students attending Wellesley and other selective colleges, which “will have negative consequences for generations of students and leaders going forward.”
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.