The Washington Post

Colleges are scene of affirmative action debate

Few issues in higher education, if any, are more sensitive than affirmative action in admissions.

Students who put extraordinary effort into getting into selective schools are often outraged when any factor is considered outside of their academic records and involvement in school activities.

In a story in Saturday’s Post, I lay out where the Washington region’s colleges stand on racial preferences as the Supreme Court takes up the issue in a case called Fisher v. University of Texas.

By consensus, schools are in favor of taking race and ethnicity into account as one of many factors in what everyone calls a “holistic” review of individual applicants. Gone are the days of explicit racial quotas in admissions — which the high court banished years ago.

(It’s worth noting that several states, led by California, have banned consideration of race in public university admissions. Maryland and Virginia have not.)

Still, college officials worry about how they can achieve demographic balance if the court prohibits any consideration of race and ethnicity. The challenge varies notably from school to school.

I spoke with Andrew Flagel, the senior vice president for students and enrollment at Brandeis University in Massachusetts and former dean of admissions and associate vice president for enrollment at George Mason University.

Flagel noted that younger schools, such as Brandeis (founded in 1948) and George Mason (which became independent from U-Va. in 1972), tend to have “less of a history of exclusion” and are therefore more diverse regardless of legal rules on admissions.

“The greatest way to become diverse,” he said, “is to already be diverse.”

By contrast, many older schools with ties to generations of alumni have a harder time with diversity. One reason is “legacy” applicants. That is, some students with parents, grandparents or other family members — going back many decades, in some cases — who went to a given school can sometimes get a preference in admissions.

A question arises: If race is banned from consideration in admissions, will alumni connections be banned as well?

Nick Anderson covers higher education for The Washington Post. He has been a writer and editor at The Post since 2005.


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