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After high court’s ruling on affirmative action, colleges confront daunting next steps on admissions

Changing landscape of higher education
WATCH: Reporter Hilary Burns explains some consequences of the Supreme Court decision on affirmative action and its impact on higher learning.

The Supreme Court handed the nation’s most selective colleges an arduous challenge with its ruling this past week striking down the use of affirmative action to recruit a diverse student population.

Schools will have to, on the one hand, reconfigure admission practices to comply with the ruling, while launching more extensive outreach and recruitment efforts to communities of color and low-income applicants. They will have to be more creative — and careful — in how race is considered in the application process.

Maintaining a more diverse campus will be expensive, not just in additional recruitment efforts but in more generous aid packages to needy students. And all this extra work will likely unfold under the ever-present threat of another legal challenge as critics will be scrutinizing their every move.


“The onus is on us to cast a wide net,” said Sian Leah Beilock, the incoming president of Dartmouth College. “My goal as a leader is to create a big tent with different points of view and different ideas on campus because that’s where we get to the best outcomes.”

The court’s ruling comes at a poignant moment for some New England colleges, including Dartmouth, where they are welcoming a diverse class of new school presidents just as the long-used admissions practice was eliminated. Beilock is Dartmouth’s first female president, and Harvard University, one of two colleges named in the Supreme Court ruling, welcomed its first Black president on Saturday, just two days after the court rebuked its admissions methods.

They will be charged with restructuring their respective colleges’ admissions strategies within the bounds of the law and ensuring their campuses are building and portraying inclusive environments that appeal to diverse students.

College and university leaders, many of whom said that they were not surprised by the ruling from the conservative-leaning court, have been strategizing for months about maintaining diversity. In the hours after the ruling, many publicly promised to comply with the law while trying to preserve commitments to diversity and inclusion.


But, some worry the ruling could deter students of color from even bothering to apply to selective colleges.

“It’s a substantively regressive decision, but it’s also a decision that sends a signal to students that maybe they’re not actually wanted in higher education,” said Clayton Spencer, outgoing president of Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, which was founded by abolitionists.

Research lends credence to such concerns. Zachary Bleemer, who teaches economics at Yale University, found that applications to top public universities in California from Black and Hispanic high school graduates fell following the state’s ban on affirmative action in 1996.

Spreading the word about generous institutional financial aid policies for low-income students will be critical for well-resourced colleges seeking diverse candidates, said Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University. Research shows that high sticker prices can deter students from applying to private colleges before knowing what kind of financial aid they would receive.

“Many students think, ‘Oh, I can’t go to Amherst [College] or Wesleyan because it’s just too expensive,’” Roth said. He added that many low-income students are able to graduate with little or no debt.

“Getting the word out to students where they are is going to be even more important, given the court’s ruling,” Roth said. “We just have to work really hard to not fall into a homogeneous campus or a homogeneous applicant pool.”


Improving social media strategies and offering more information online about application and financial aid could also help reach students who can’t afford out-of-state campus visits, experts said.

That will also require evaluating how minority students view their lived experiences on campuses, especially for colleges that have historically had low numbers of students of color. Expanding and adding resource centers and affinity groups could help those students feel more welcome on campus, experts said. For example, historically Black colleges in recent years have succeeded at creating buzz on social media to attract prospective students.

Improving the campus experience for students of all backgrounds has been a priority in recent years for Spencer at Bates.

“If we admit you, that’s our vote of confidence in you that you have the talent to be here and we believe you’ll make a contribution to our community while you’re here and to society later on,” Spencer said. “And if we don’t organize ourselves to make good on that vote of confidence, then it’s a pretty empty” promise.

One example of making the educational experience more equitable is ensuring that curricula reflect a diverse world.

“You don’t want to have an African American student say to you in his junior year that they never studied Black artists in your art history curriculum,” Spencer said. “And those things happen.”

More colleges have moved away from SAT requirements since the COVID-19 pandemic, citing expensive tutoring and preparation services that not everyone can access.


“For someone who kind of slipped by at a really great school where nobody fails, and then does really well on SATs because they have tutors — we actually wouldn’t want that student at Wesleyan,” Roth said. “We don’t think that the SATs reflects their innate potential. We think that probably they’ve been kind of lazy and didn’t take advantage of the opportunities they had and didn’t have to overcome any obstacles, so they’re not very interesting to us as an applicant.”

Those who work with low-income and disadvantaged students say they will now advise applicants to consider the role racial identity has played in their lives as they complete essay questions on college applications, said Sydney Montgomery, executive director and founder of the nonprofit Barrier Breakers.

“I like to remind students that admissions deans want to admit a diverse class,” Montgomery said. “Look for opportunities where you can meet them in person. If you can tell your story at a conference, or during a school visit, or a Zoom call, do it. No pun intended, but adding color to who you are off the page will be immensely helpful for students of color in this new landscape we’re in.”

The ruling does allow for colleges to continue so-called holistic admissions processes, which involve considering applicants’ life experiences and character beyond academic achievements. College leaders say teacher recommendations and essay questions about life experiences and overcoming adversity will continue to be an important part of the admissions process, although the Supreme Court warned against relying too much on essays in lieu of racial considerations.


“Universities may not simply establish through application essays or other means the regime we hold unlawful today,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion that admissions policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

Roth, at Wesleyan, said the “lived experience of the applicant” is going to be a key factor in admissions moving forward.

“For a person of color growing up in the United States, the lived experience is going to be inflected by race,” Roth said. “We’ll be able to pay attention to the other ways in which a person’s experience reflects their potential for future work and their ability to contribute to the university community.”

President Biden encouraged colleges and universities to continue striving for diversity and suggested they put more emphasis on how applicants have overcome adversity. The Department of Education and the Justice Department are expected to publish guidelines within 45 days to help colleges determine if their admissions policies are complying with the law.

Biden instructed the Education Department to analyze ways colleges can promote campus diversity. The president also took aim at practices such as legacy admissions that “stand in the way.”

A handful of selective schools, including Amherst College and MIT, have already eliminated the practice of giving preferential treatment to the children of alumni in the admissions process. Some advocates also want to see an end to preferences for children of donors and binding early decision practices, which tend to benefit white, wealthier students.

In Massachusetts, legislation filed earlier this year would fine colleges and universities that use these practices. Funds from the fines would then be distributed to Massachusetts community colleges.

“Elite schools in Massachusetts and elsewhere are being profoundly hypocritical by decrying the loss of race-conscious affirmative action while persisting with the use of policies that heavily advantage generationally wealthy and white applicants,” State Representative Simon Cataldo said.

An analysis of Harvard admissions data, which became public through the court case, found that the acceptance rate for legacy applicants from 2010 to 2015 was 33.6 percent, about 5.7 times higher than the acceptance rate for non-legacy applicants.

California’s top public universities spent decades and hundreds of thousands of dollars crafting outreach and recruitment strategies to increase their numbers of Black and Hispanic students after affirmative action was banned there in 1996. College leaders in other states will be studying what worked to improve campus diversity in California.

Students walked past Sather Gate on the University of California at Berkeley. California banned affirmative action in 1996.Ben Margot/Associated Press

Still, Femi Ogundele, dean for undergraduate admissions at the University of California at Berkeley, recently told the Globe that more work needs to be done for the campus to reflect the diversity of the state.

“I would love to be able to consider race,” Ogundele said.

New England’s selective colleges say they are putting their best minds to work on solutions to pursue diversity legally, even as advocacy groups stand ready to pounce with more litigation that alleges colleges are discriminating.

“To pick this moment to turn back the clock on progress is deeply disappointing,” Spencer said. “That doesn’t mean we retrench. I think it’s time for leadership on these issues.”

Mike Damiano of the Globe Staff contributed to this story.

Hilary Burns can be reached at Follow her @Hilarysburns.