Court ruling continues to stir debate about college admissions

June 24, 2013

The Supreme Court’s decision Monday to force another look at the legality of race-conscious admissions at the University of Texas is likely to intensify debate about affirmative action at colleges and universities nationwide.

The high court affirmed its precedents on the use of race in college admissions but ruled that courts reviewing college policies must consider whether “workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity.”

Several states have banned racial preferences in public university admissions since the 1990s, and instead have sought to achieve diversity through other means. Experts said the ruling is likely to spur widespread internal reviews of school policies to ensure that they comply with the law.

Some analysts say that initiatives already in use, on the whole, show that it is possible to assemble a balanced class of incoming students by focusing on factors such as family income and geography instead of skin color and ethnicity. Others say that race remains an essential ingredient for admissions officers seeking to ensure diversity.

At public colleges in Maryland and Virginia, admissions officers have repeatedly defended the use of race in what is known in the field as a “holistic” review of applications. They had been awaiting the ruling in the Texas case to find out whether those policies would be struck down. For now, the court has left them intact.

“We have not been told through this ruling that anything we’re currently doing is contrary to law,” said Henry Broaddus, dean of admission at the public College of William & Mary in Virginia.

Shannon R. Gundy, director of admissions at the University of Maryland, said she was pleased that the ruling continued to allow the consideration of race and ethnicity among 26 factors in U-Md. admissions.

But Gundy predicted that schools everywhere will review their policies.

“Conversations have to be had,” Gundy said. “What are we doing? How are we doing it? And are we doing everything we possibly can to be sure we’re doing it appropriately in the legal framework?”

Richard D. Kahlenberg, an analyst with the left-leaning Century Foundation, contends that viable alternatives to race-based admissions are underway in places such as Florida. Since that state banned the use of race in admissions in 2001, the University of Florida has managed to increase the number of Hispanic students significantly, according to a foundation report. The black share of enrollment has been up and down.

In an effort to maintain diversity without considering race, the report found, the university stepped up outreach to minority high school students and bolstered scholarships for first-generation college students from low-income families. Florida also began a “Talented 20” program to ensure that students in the top 20 percent of their high school graduating class could obtain slots at state universities — regardless of race — and it took steps to consider students’ socioeconomic backgrounds.

Kahlenberg said that, after Monday’s ruling, “universities are going to be really pushed to justify the use of race.” He added, “I think this will push universities toward alternatives: class-based, economic affirmative action.”

Other analysts, contending that racial affirmative action remains necessary, point to the experience of California.

A 1996 voter referendum in the nation’s most populous state banned racial preferences in public university admissions. The share of black and Hispanic students at the University of California’s prestigious Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses fell significantly and has not recovered. The stagnant population of Hispanic students at UCLA and UC Berkeley stands in sharp contrast to the state’s booming Hispanic population.

The UC system has increased minority outreach, built partnerships with K-12 schools and banned “legacy” preferences for alumni, which are often considered an obstacle to racial diversity. The nine-campus system considers socioeconomic background, and it seeks to guarantee admission for those ranked at or near the top of their class.

But analysts say those steps have not raised the share of black and Hispanic students at the system’s top two schools.

“The record shows we tried pretty much everything that seemed feasible,” said Patricia Gandara, an education professor and co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. “The university tried to be responsible in this. But the diversity challenge is getting more and more difficult.”

Many public and private universities had urged the Supreme Court to preserve the status quo in admissions.

Monday’s ruling “is a complex one, but it does make clear that colleges and universities will have work to do,” said Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, which represents college presidents. “Each institution will need to show that any process that considers race and ethnicity as part of a holistic admissions review is precisely tailored to meet the goals of achieving the educational benefits that flow from diversity.”

A former Post education editor, Nick writes about college from the perspective of a father of three who will soon be buried in tuition bills.
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