Ithaca College in upstate New York doesn’t consider race at all in its admissions decisions.
At Davidson College, a top-ranked liberal arts institution in North Carolina, admissions officers say they value diversity and are aware of applicants’ race, but it’s not a factor in choosing individual students.
The College of Charleston in South Carolina dropped race from its admissions review two years ago, only to reverse its decision this past summer after community members discovered the change and protested.
On the eve of Harvard University’s court trial over affirmative action in admissions, many US colleges continue to wrestle with whether — and how much — race should be considered in offering an applicant a seat.
They have adopted a patchwork of practices, and hundreds of higher-education institutions have retreated from race-conscious admissions altogether. Some have been prompted by state bans; others have done so voluntarily, skittish about divided public opinion and potential lawsuits.
“Certainly, schools are committed to a racially diverse student body; they don’t hide that. What’s misunderstood is how they get there,” said Lorelle Espinosa, an assistant vice president at the American Council on Education, a higher-education trade group. “It’s a complex issue. The way the work is done is not necessarily transparent and talked about in a way people understand.”
The rethinking of race-conscious admissions comes as the overall diversity of the country and particularly of college-age students has grown.
The white, college-age population in the United States dropped from 62 percent in 2000 to 54 percent in 2016, according to the US Department of Education. Meanwhile, the black, college-age population ticked up from 14 percent in 2000 to 15 percent in 2016. Hispanics saw an even larger jump, from 18 percent to 22 percent. Asians increased their share of college-age residents from 4 percent to 6 percent in that time.
Yet even with race-conscious admissions, many highly selective colleges fall short of mirroring the racial breakdown of the country as a whole.
The lawsuit accusing Harvard of discrimination in its use of affirmative action is likely to make the already-fraught issue of race in admissions even more contentious. The case is scheduled for trial on Monday in US District Court in Boston.
“This case channels the deeply held beliefs of a vast majority of Americans that race and ethnicity should not be a consideration in college admissions,” said Edward Blum, the leader of Students for Fair Admissions, which has sued Harvard.
For Harvard, the stakes are high. The school has argued that its admissions policies are legal and have been cited by the Supreme Court as an appropriate application of affirmative action. Eliminating race-conscious decisions would threaten diversity on campus, where 21 percent of students are Asian, nearly 12 percent are Hispanic, and 8 percent are black, the university said.
“America has traditionally been a melting pot. That’s one of the strengths. Colleges and universities should reflect that melting pot,” Lawrence Bacow, Harvard’s president, said in an interview with the Globe. “To say we should ignore race also suggests we’re ignoring an essential component of society.”
If the lawsuit succeeds in knocking down Harvard’s system, it would weaken race-conscious admissions nationwide, Bacow said.
Still, nearly 60 years after President John F. Kennedy coined the term “affirmative action” and after the Supreme Court has narrowly but repeatedly upheld the practice, the number of colleges that continue to consider race in admissions has shrunk.
In 1994, 60 percent of the country’s nearly 1,000 competitive colleges publicly stated that they considered race in admissions. By 2014, it had dropped to 35 percent, according to a recent study.
Slightly under half of those colleges ending race-conscious admissions were public institutions that were required to do so because of bans in states such as California, Michigan, and Washington.
Most of the remaining universities that reported they did not consider race were generally less-selective institutions, said Daniel Hirschman, a Brown University professor who coauthored the study.
Some of those colleges accept a significant share of applicants and may feel that affirmative action is unnecessary. Others may simply want to avoid the costs and headaches of a lawsuit, Hirschman said.
The most elite colleges in the United States, including the Ivy League institutions, have not backed away from their public support of race-based admissions in recent decades, according to Hirschman.
“Conservative backlash and the 30 years of litigation have led schools to be more cautious,” he said. “Some of them have removed the explicit use of race, and for a small subset that has meant lower black and Latino enrollment.”
Ithaca College reported that for nearly two decades it hasn’t given extra weight to individual applicants’ races when admitting a new class of students. But the college does focus on recruiting and retaining a diverse student body, said Bob Wagner, a spokesman.
At Ithaca, about 22 percent of the 6,020 undergraduates are biracial or from racial minorities. At Harvard, about 47 percent of the 6,700 undergrads are biracial or from racial minority groups.
But Wagner said Ithaca has more than doubled the percentage of freshmen who identify as students of color in the past decade.
Even schools that do consider race give it varying weight, according to an annual survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, an industry group.
Nearly 4 percent of the institutions that participated in the survey reported race had a considerable influence, while 17 percent said it had a limited influence. About 66 percent said it had no influence.
At Harvard, race seems to be part of the discussion from the beginning, as students are sorted by their grades, extracurricular activities, personal characteristics, teacher recommendations, and alumni interviews, according to documents filed in the case. Athletes, students whose parent attended Harvard, low-income students, and racial and ethic minorities are given an advantage, according to court documents.
The consideration of race continues through the end of Harvard’s process, as admissions officials fine-tune the prospective incoming class through a procedure the school calls “lopping.” Students on the bubble for admission are reviewed on a handful of factors, including race.
The lawsuit has shed some light on the inner workings of Harvard’s admissions process, but how race is evaluated at most other colleges largely remains a mystery.
Some institutions may only consider the race of applicants who need a closer review because their grades and academic scores just narrowly meet the cut-off requirements, said David Hawkins, executive director of educational content and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
Other colleges may check for racial demographics after they select a pool of applicants for admission to ensure the overall profile meets the school’s goals, Hawkins said.
Until 2016, the College of Charleston’s admissions officers conducted a second review of applicants of color who were initially rejected. The college dropped that second look and focused on recruitment two years ago, only to reinstate it after civil rights leaders questioned the change.
While rare, some institutions, such as Tulane University in New Orleans, have adopted more race-conscious admissions in recent years.
As a city, New Orleans has among the highest percentage of African-Americans in the United States, but Tulane didn’t integrate its campus until 1963 and had previously argued that its endowment specified it should be for white students.
Tulane eliminated race-conscious admissions in the late 1990s, most likely due to concerns over the legal challenges that were being raised nationwide, said Satyajit Dattagupta, Tulane’s dean of admission.
But in 2015, a committee of faculty, students, and staff urged Tulane’s new president to increase the university’s diversity and to consider an applicant’s race as one of many factors in admissions, Dattagupta said.
Since 2015, Tulane has increased its enrollment of students of color, from 17 percent to 22 percent in 2018.
“The current university administration is committed to developing a diverse and inclusive campus in order to further our overarching goal to enroll the best and brightest student body — one that is capable of tackling the complex problems facing an increasingly diverse world,” Dattagupta said.
Advocates of affirmative action often point to the California example to illustrate the drawbacks of eliminating affirmative action.
In 1996, voters barred the state’s public colleges and universities from using affirmative action. Since then, the most competitive schools, the University of California Berkeley and the University of California Los Angeles, have experienced the most profound drops in black and Latino students in the state university system and have not returned to their pre-ban levels.
Less-selective colleges in the system have returned to pre-ban levels but have failed to keep up with the soaring Latino population during that time.
The gap between the percentage of Latino students who graduate from California’s public high schools and those who enroll as freshmen in public universities grew wider, from 14 points to 24 points between 1995 and 2014, according to a 2015 study.
“The bottom line here in California is that we have really never recovered,” said Patricia Gandara, codirector of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, who cowrote the study.
At Harvard, where students are intently watching the affirmative action lawsuit, sophomore Aba Sam, 19, said diversity in the classroom is crucial for elite institutions educating future presidents and corporate leaders.
“It would be easier to reach pretty erroneous conclusions about black people . . . if you don’t have black people sitting in the classrooms,” said Sam, vice president of the Harvard-Radcliffe Black Students Association.
Sam fears that without race-conscious admissions, elite schools such as Harvard would repeat the California experience of cratering black and Latino enrollment. Those declines leave the minority students who are admitted feeling isolated, Sam said.
Despite Harvard’s diversity, black students still hear the n-word tossed around, get critical questions about their hair, and have to speak up to ensure that black scholars and experts aren’t brought in just for diversity events, Sam said.
Having a sizable number of other black students to talk to about these shared experiences has been helpful, she said.
“My biggest fear with this lawsuit is that . . . there won’t be enough opportunity for comfort and support from one another,” Sam said. “We are expecting black students to be isolated, to be silenced.”