To clarify recent reports of the Trump administration’s attempts to undermine diversity consideration in the college admissions process, Sen. Bob Casey has sent a letter to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, calling for answers to what the senator termed as four vital questions.
“The DOJ and Department of Education should, together, be working to preserve and promote the civil rights of all students, to ensure that individuals have the opportunity to succeed, regardless of gender, ethnicity, race, religion or disability,” said Casey (D-Pennsylvania). “I have serious concerns that an investigation into college admissions policies conducted by political appointees does not advance these goals,” he said.
Even after decades of affirmative action, black and Hispanic students are more underrepresented at the nation’s top colleges and universities than they were 35 years ago, according to a New York Times analysis.
The share of black freshmen at elite schools is virtually unchanged since 1980. Black students are just 6 percent of freshmen but 15 percent of college-age Americans, as the chart below shows.
More Hispanics are attending elite schools, but the increase has not kept up with the huge growth of young Hispanics in the United States, so the gap between students and the college-age population has widened.
The Times analysis includes 100 schools ranging from public flagship universities to the Ivy League. For both blacks and Hispanics, the trend extends back to at least 1980, the earliest year that fall enrollment data was available from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Blacks and Hispanics have gained ground at less selective colleges and universities but not at the highly selective institutions, said Terry Hartle, a senior vice president at the American Council on Education, which represents more than 1,700 colleges and universities.
The courts have ruled that colleges and universities can consider race or ethnicity “as one element in a holistic admissions policy, so it’s something that can be considered, but it’s not a magic bullet,” Hartle told the Times.
Affirmative action increases the numbers of black and Hispanic students at many colleges and universities, but experts say that persistent underrepresentation often stems from equity issues that begin earlier.
Elementary and secondary schools with large numbers of black and Hispanic students are less likely to have experienced teachers, advanced courses, high-quality instructional materials and adequate facilities, according to the United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
“There’s such a distinct disadvantage to begin with,” said David Hawkins, an executive director at the National Association for College Admission Counseling. “A cascading set of obstacles all seem to contribute to a diminished representation of minority students in highly selective colleges.”
Black students make up 9 percent of the freshmen at Ivy League schools but 15 percent of college-age Americans, roughly the same gap as in 1980. A category for multiracial students, introduced in 2008, has slightly reduced the share of black students.
At all eight schools, white enrollment declined as Asian enrollment increased. In recent years, the growth of Asian enrollment has slowed at some schools, and some Asian-American students say they are being held to a higher standard.
On Aug. 1, the DOJ reportedly began seeking attorneys to work on “investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions,” an apparent reference to the admissions policies instituted by many colleges and universities to ensure that diversity on campus reflects the diversity of the country at large.
“Furthermore, reports indicated that the project will be run by political appointees at DOJ, rather than the career civil servants in the Department’s Educational Opportunities Section,” Casey said. “Protecting and promoting the civil rights and opportunities of all students should be a core priority of both DOJ and the Department of Education. I have serious concerns that an investigation like this, carried out by political appointees, undermines that goal.”
In a statement issued Aug. 2, a DOJ spokesperson indicated that the investigation into college admissions was currently limited to a single case involving Harvard University.
“Nevertheless, whether the Department intends to expand this investigatory project to other institutions, or pursue this single instance as a test case, I am troubled by the impact it could have on colleges and universities, whose admissions policies could make them a target of legal action by political appointees at the DOJ,” Casey said. “I am also concerned that the DOJ’s actions could have a chilling effect on colleges’ and universities’ efforts to increase diversity on campus and promote educational opportunity for all Americans.”
The senator has requested answers to questions such as whether the DOJ intends to investigate admissions processes at colleges and universities other than the Harvard University case and whether the DOJ intends to pursue admissions-related legal action against colleges and universities, many of which have relied on Supreme Court precedent in tailoring their admissions policies.
Casey also said he wants to know if the investigation will be run by political appointees, rather than the career civil servants in the Educational Opportunities Section, as has been reported and, if so, why that decision was made.
“The DOJ and Department of Education should, together, be working to preserve and promote the civil rights of all students, to ensure that individuals have the opportunity to succeed, regardless of gender, ethnicity, race, religion or disability,” Casey said. “I have serious concerns that an investigation into college admissions policies conducted by political appointees does not advance these goals.”