High school seniors aren’t just worrying about the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. Many of them are processing college admissions decisions and deciding where — or even whether — to enroll in the fall. Meanwhile, how colleges decide which applicants to admit remains contentious, with several cases challenging race-conscious admissions policies, which lead to more racially diverse college classes.

Whatever the courts decide, our research suggests that college students generally support having racially diverse campuses. And more often than you might expect, that support crosses different ethnicities, genders, socioeconomic status and even partisan affiliations.

The U.S. is seeing big legal battles over diversity

Over the past several years, groups such as Students for Fair Admissions have brought various legal cases against colleges, hoping that federal judges will rule that race-conscious admissions policies violate the Constitution. In October, Judge Alison Burroughs of the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts ruled against this argument in Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. Harvard, finding that Harvard University’s admissions process does not discriminate against Asian American applicants. SFFA filed an appeal, which many expect to reach the Supreme Court. Further, SFFA has filed similar lawsuits about admissions policies at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where it contends admissions practices fail to pursue race-neutral alternatives that could produce diverse student bodies.

All these universities’ administrators respond to SFFA’s claims by arguing that having a racially diverse campus has educational benefits that cannot be realized without race-conscious admissions. Conservative judges are unconvinced. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. made that clear in his 2016 dissent in Fisher v. Texas:

If a university can justify racial discrimination simply by having a few employees opine that racial preferences are necessary to accomplish these nebulous goals.... Courts will be required to defer to the judgment of university administrators, and affirmative action policies will be completely insulated from judicial review.

Alito questions whether administrators are the right people to determine the proper interests of college students. We wanted to find out whether students themselves value campus racial diversity. They do, consistently — across a wide range of demographic differences.

To find out what students think, we let them choose

It’s hard to use standard survey evidence to figure out what people really want. In reports published two days apart last year, Gallup showed Americans favoring affirmative action in college admissions by a margin of 2 to 1, while Pew showed them opposing the consideration of race in admissions by the same margin. Subtle changes in how survey questions are worded or framed can skew results and produce starkly different pictures of what the public wants.

To get around this, in our research for our book, “Campus Diversity: The Hidden Consensus,” we treated students as if they were administrators. We used a method called “conjoint analysis,” which doesn’t ask about affirmative action as an abstract policy issue. Instead, it presented students at seven universities — and faculty at two — with decisions much like those faced by real admissions committees.

The schools we included were the University of California at San Diego, the University of New Mexico, the University of Nevada at Reno, the University of North Carolina, Dartmouth College, the U.S. Naval Academy and the London School of Economics. The group includes large and small institutions, public and private, highly selective and nonselective, in various regions with distinct demographics.

Working with faculty partners at each school, we recruited a sample of more than 8,000 students and faculty to participate in our online survey experiments, which we administered from late 2016 to early 2018.

We asked our participants to select among hypothetical student applicants to their school, each of whom had an array of characteristics, including race/ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic status, but also academic records, test scores, family connections, nonacademic interests and accomplishments, local ties (or not), and so on.

We randomly combined the characteristics for each composite applicant, and then looked at the choices that our students and faculty made. By looking at which applicants they chose and which they didn’t, we could measure which characteristics they favored and disfavored and see how important each characteristic was. We were also able to compare our participants’ selections according to whether the respondents were, say, men or women, white or black, first-generation students or had parents who attended college, and so forth.

What campus communities care about

We found three critical things. First, students always cared most about academic achievement when making their choices.

Second, our respondents consistently favored student applicants from groups that have traditionally been underrepresented in American higher education. All else equal, they were more likely to select racial and ethnic minorities than whites, women than men, and the socioeconomically disadvantaged than the wealthy.

Third, when we broke our respondents into distinct groups — by race/ethnicity, by gender, by socioeconomic status, and even by political partisanship, or by whether they said they supported race-conscious admissions on conventional survey questions — we found their decisions were much more similar than we expected.

What’s more, we found virtually no outright polarization. In other words, no one group positively preferred applicants of a particular type — say, of a particular racial group — while another group disfavored applicants on those same grounds. Across the board, we found that students make diversity a priority in undergraduate admissions.

There is consensus on campus diversity

Many citizens and at least some political leaders are skeptical about campus diversity, at least when asked about it in the abstract. However, our research suggests that it isn’t just university administrators who want diversity. Students and faculty selected a diverse student body more consistently than you might expect. In fact, their selections were consistent with how race, ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic status are currently considered in undergraduate admissions policies.

John M. Carey (@johncarey03755) is the Wentworth Professor in the Social Sciences and associate dean of faculty for the social sciences at Dartmouth College.

Katherine Clayton (@katie_clayton14) is a PhD student in political science at Stanford University.

Yusaku Horiuchi (@YusakuHoriuchi) is professor of government and Mitsui Professor of Japanese Studies at Dartmouth College.

Together they are the authors of Campus Diversity: The Hidden Consensus (Cambridge University, 2019).