College admissions and the Supreme Court: Race, wealth and selectivity

Most selective colleges, public and private, profess to seek a diverse class of students. But that is often an elusive goal.

Sometime this month, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on a suit challenging an affirmative action policy in Texas. At issue in Fisher v. University of Texas is whether a student’s race or ethnicity can factor into admissions decisions.

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In 2003, when the court last ruled on the matter, it affirmed that student diversity is a compelling state interest that can justify the use of race in university admissions, as long as schools take sufficient care to evaluate each applicant individually.

Separately, California and several other states have banned the use of race as a factor in admission to public universities. Maryland and Virginia are not among them.

Under the 2003 ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger, the “holistic” approach to admissions decisions, with race and ethnicity among possible criteria, is now the norm at many selective colleges, public and private.

Allowing consideration of race “makes an awful lot of difference for us,” said Shannon R. Gundy, director of undergraduate admissions for the University of Maryland. She said U-Md. seeks classes that are academically talented and racially diverse — a goal included in its mission statement. “If we in the admissions office are charged with that goal and can’t consider race, it sort of stymies our efforts,” Gundy said.

Here are a few demographic measures of nine schools in Maryland, Virginia and the District that admit fewer than half of their applicants. Schools are listed in order of selectivity, with admission rates drawn from 2012-2013 federal data. Racial data are from fall 2011, financial aid data from the 2010-2011 school year.

Georgetown University: Private Jesuit school in the District; 18 percent admission rate; 61 percent of undergraduates are white; 14 percent have enough financial need to be eligible for federal Pell grants.

Johns Hopkins University: Private school in Baltimore; 18 percent admission rate; 52 percent white; 12 percent eligible for Pell grants.

Washington and Lee University: Private school in Lexington, Va.; 19 percent admission rate; 84 percent white; 11 percent eligible for Pell grants.

University of Richmond: Private school in Virginia’s capital; 30 percent admission rate; 60 percent white; 14 percent eligible for Pell grants.

University of Virginia: Public flagship; 30 percent admission rate; 60 percent white; 13 percent eligible for Pell grants.

College of William and Mary: Public school in Williamsburg; 32 percent admission rate; 57 percent white; 10 percent eligible for Pell grants.

George Washington University: Private school in the District; 33 percent admission rate; 57 percent white; 13 percent eligible for Pell grants.

American University: Private school in the District; 44 percent admission rate; 56 percent white; 15 percent eligible for Pell grants.

University of Maryland at College Park: Public flagship; 47 percent admission rate; 56 percent white; 15 percent eligible for Pell grants.

Three trends stick out.

First is that, in this snapshot of selective schools, the share of white students hovers in a fairly narrow band. Washington and Lee has the most homogeneously white student body, and Hopkins has the lowest share of white students. But take away those two schools, and the rest have a strikingly similar profile.

Second, it is extremely difficult for selective schools to achieve socioeconomic diversity. The Pell grant share is no more than 15 percent and no less than 10 percent for any of the nine schools.

Third, certain local schools with admission rates of 50 to 60 percent are significantly more diverse than any of those nine.

Consider George Mason in Fairfax County, Virginia’s largest public university, which admits 55 percent of undergraduate applicants. Forty-seven percent of its undergrads are white and 25 percent qualify for Pell grants.

Or take the University of Maryland Baltimore County, another well-regarded public school with rising selectivity. Its admission rate is 60 percent. Forty-nine percent of its undergrads are white, and 21 percent qualify for Pell grants.

Overall, the data suggest that, no matter how the court rules in the Fisher case, questions will persist about how much educational opportunity the most selective schools will provide to students from families of modest means.

 
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