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When the Supreme Court released its latest decision striking down affirmative action, Zakiya Smith Ellis was surprised.
To be clear, she wasn’t surprised by the decision. As expected, the six conservative-learning, Republican-appointed justices banded together to end the consideration of race college admissions. Instead, she was surprised by the length of the decision — 237 pages compared to the court’s last ruling on race-conscious admissions in 2003, which was only 90 pages.
So if you’re looking for some clarity on what the decision means for the future of diversity in higher education, pull up a chair. Education experts, like Smith Ellis, are still combing through pages and trying to figure out a path forward.
“We are still going through all 200-plus pages of it to understand what the scope is and isn’t,” Smith Ellis, the principal of EducationCounsel LLC, said in an Education Writers Association press call.
In fact, she said, it will probably take several weeks to “really decipher and go through” the concurrence and dissents.
“Even when there’s a majority ruling, the reasons why a Justice feels that way may be different,” Smith Ellis said. “When you have something that splintered with different opinions, you actually have to go through each one to see what they say and where the majority of the court agrees.”
And a big part of the challenge, Smith Ellis said, is that the Court “ruled on a process that wasn’t actually the process that institutions use.”
The perception was that affirmative action primarily benefited Black and Latino students, whereas race-conscious admissions promoted “educational diversity for all students,” Smith Ellis said.
“You’re no longer going to get the same quality of education that you did before because you don’t have the brilliance of your students of color who may be from underrepresented backgrounds to learn from,” Smith Ellis said.
In the meantime, here’s what experts are focusing on now.
New Tools for Diverse Enrollment
A major focus now is what tools colleges and universities can use to create a diverse student body while following the law.
Melanie Gottlieb, the executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said many schools have already developed more robust holistic admissions processes.
“We can’t strip admissions officers of every tool that they might have in order to assess whether or not a learner is ready,” Gottlieb said. “So this question about the tools is a challenging one, but institutions are well prepared to move forward and strengthen the tools that they use without as much attention on race.”
The “broader set of tools” we can think about include things like guaranteed admissions from community colleges and more robust transfer pipelines, Smith Ellis said. For example, following the lead of Rutgers University’s transfer program, New Jersey neighbor Princeton University recently started accepting transfer students as a way to expand.
Another tool is looking more closely at who is accepted based on legacy admissions and early decision programs. Smith Ellis said that institutions need to look at how they’re used and the outcome.
Harvard data showed that, in the 2014-2019 classes, children of Harvard alumni were accepted to the school at a rate of 33.6%, compared to 5.9% of non-legacy applicants.
And financial aid programs need to be bolstered, too. Smith Ellis said there needs to be a focus on creating and sharing scholarship opportunities for attending colleges students might be afraid to apply to due to the cost.
“There are many places where people have talent, but they’re not really encouraged to apply to some of these institutions even if they have very robust financial aid because you don’t know that until you go through the whole process,” Smith Ellis said.
That means it’s important that colleges and universities — as well as high school guidance counselors — be more transparent early on about what aid is available and introduce the options and programs to students at an earlier age so they can start planning ahead.
But these tools are all “very resource intensive,” Gottlieb said.
“That’s one of the challenges that we’re going to see in an environment where higher education costs are rising,” Gottlieb said. “We are going to have to spend more in order to ensure we have equity of opportunity.”
Are These Solutions Proven?
Creating community college alliances, scrutinizing legacy admissions, and bolstering financial aid programs are all viable solutions. One major challenge? “There are no elite institutions who have done those things,” Gottlieb said.
Indeed, there aren’t institutions that have fully banned all kinds of legacy preferences, early decision preferences, or full scholarships for people from higher income backgrounds, Smith Ellis said.
“What we are now facing is a situation where we’re going to need to try more things than we have in the past,” Smith Ellis said.
However, Smith Ellis said there are examples of schools that are on the right track. She lives in Atlanta, where Georgia State University has increased their Black student enrollment, and now Black and Latino students are graduating at the same rate as white students.
In its 2015 cohort, 57% respectively of Black, Hispanic, and Asian students, all first-time degree seekers, graduated, compared to 52% of white students.
This “is something that most people haven’t done,” Smith Ellis said. “Other folks are learning from them about what they do.”
How to Consider Race
It’s still not clear how, within the legal constraints, higher education institutions can consider race.
In his opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that it’s fair for applicants to discuss how race has affected their lives, “be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.”
But, he then continued that “a benefit to a student who overcame racial discrimination, for example, must be tied to that student’s courage and determination. … In other words, the student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual-not on the basis of race.”
“Maybe you say, ‘I’m so proud of my heritage, and I think it contributes to who I am and how I’ve been able to be successful,’’ Smith Ellis said. “The question will be how you implement that without running afoul of that with the Court, and that is definitely too early to tell.”
But, Gottlieb said, Roberts also “cautioned the use of the essay as a placeholder.”
“The essay is one of the tools that they can use to really get beyond the test score to get beyond the grades on the transcript, and understand the character of the student,” Gottlieb said. “So I don’t think that we quite know how we should proceed yet.”
Changes to Collecting Student Data
Smith Ellis was quick to deny the claim that students can no longer “check the box.” As in, colleges and universities are still allowed to ask for demographic information.
Institutions are required to report race and ethnicity data on enrolled students, Gottlieb said. The government collects that information as part of compliance reporting.
“That’s not going to go away,” Gottlieb said. “It’s a question about where that data will be collected. It’s too soon to know.”
Many colleges do blind admissions, meaning the admissions team doesn’t see certain information about an applicant, like family income. This, Smith Ellis said, is a potential way universities might continue to collect that information without it going into the admissions process.
Impact on HBCUs
HBCUs saw record-breaking enrollment during the pandemic, and experts predict more of the same following this SCOTUS decision.
“One of the things that we are seeing is, because of some of these anti-DEI pushes, that more students are seeking those institutions as places where they will feel welcomed, where they will feel supported, and where they won’t feel like they are under attack for who they are,” Smith Ellis said.
“All of those places that purport to cater to and support students of color from a variety of different ethnicities,” Smith Ellis said, “are probably likely to see more students in the coming years.”