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The future of ‘race-neutral’ admissions policies

A former college admissions officer reckons with the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn affirmative action.

(Marielam1 / Wikimedia Commons)
Jimmy Aguilar is a Ph.D. student at USC studying urban education policy with a focus on higher education. He was a former admissions officer at Georgetown University.

With college application deadlines approaching, prospective students, counselors and university admissions offices are still uncertain about the implications of affirmative-action restrictions on admissions, enrollment and the long-term diversity on college campuses.

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Students for Fair Admissions in their cases against Harvard and University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in June, restricting the use of race-conscious admissions. While this decision directly impacts USC and several other private universities, public universities in nine states, including California, have experience dealing with the negative impacts of mandates imposing ‘race-neutral’ admissions.

Having navigated through selective universities as both a student and an admissions officer, I have observed the misinformation this ruling generates and the uncertainty it brings upon underrepresented students. Therefore, I aim to highlight some valuable lessons that can be learned from California public universities, which have years of experience operating under race-neutral mandates.

University responses to restrictions that run counter to their values

After the Supreme Court’s ruling on race-conscious admissions, universities nationwide and the United States Department of Education are looking to states that have successfully promoted racial diversity through race-neutral policies. Despite the ruling, many colleges remain unwavering in their commitment to diversity.

After the court’s decision, numerous university presidents, including those from Harvard, UNC Chapel Hill, Amherst and USC, quickly affirmed their commitment to diversity while ensuring compliance with the ruling. Admissions offices at institutions like Wesleyan, Bucknell and Bates also proactively issued a statement to reassure student applicants of their continued commitment to diversity in the admissions process.

“This decision will not impact our commitment to creating a campus that is welcoming, diverse, and inclusive to talented individuals from every background,” President Carol Folt said. “We will not go backward.”

Some university leaders emphasized the benefits of diversity for all students, expressed their aversion to moving backward and acknowledged the strengths that current students and alumni bring to their campuses. This last point is important to recognize, as the Supreme Court’s decision might lead some to invalidate the experiences of students of color at selective universities.

The Supreme Court decision has placed admissions offices nationwide in a difficult position. Despite this, the most selective colleges have confirmed compliance with the ruling while maintaining a strong commitment to diversity. They are tasked with and seemingly eager to find creative ways to uphold their values through holistic review processes, enhanced recruitment strategies and amplifying student identity throughout the application. These statements and the hopeful actions that will soon follow demonstrate resistance within the bounds of the law, allowing these universities to uphold their commitment to diversity and inclusivity.

Lessons from states with existing race-neutral mandates

The commitments of universities after the Supreme Court’s ruling reflect the efforts made by several public universities that have had to operate under race-neutral mandates since 1996. Before the Supreme Court’s decision, nine states had banned affirmative action or “preferential treatment” in public university admissions. California was the earliest adopter of this ban in 1996 through Proposition 209.

For nearly 30 years, these states with selective public universities have worked tirelessly to promote racial and ethnic diversity within their schools while adhering to the law. However, opponents of affirmative action believe that diversity is solely achieved through flawed merit-based concepts, failing to recognize the additional efforts made by university admissions offices within these states to promote equity and racial diversity.

Despite efforts to promote diversity, the University of California campuses have not been able to reach the same levels of diversity they once had before Proposition 209 was implemented. This is concerning, especially for universities that will adapt to this new ruling, as it may lead to the gradual fading of important voices in classrooms that were already underrepresented. In California, implementing race-neutral policies after Proposition 209 led to declines in the enrollment of Black and Latine students, declines from which they have struggled to recover despite significant investments.

In predicting the future of nationwide “race-neutral” admissions policies, my professional experience tells me that these policies will present challenges to admissions officers in contextualizing student experiences. Selective university admissions offices are well aware of this issue, as many have already adjusted their practices to comply with Supreme Court precedents and to address external scrutiny from dissatisfied students, parents and conservative politicians who view admissions as a zero-sum game.

Looking ahead to the future of “race-neutral” admissions

As a former admissions officer, I understand my colleagues’ challenges in achieving racial diversity under new, stringent constraints. My own research raises concerns about the organizational ripple effects of these restrictions. Spoiler alert: They may exacerbate inequities and further restrict college access. On a personal level, as an uncle to a rising senior, I have seen how this ruling heightens uncertainty for my niece as she navigates the college admissions process.

The Supreme Court’s decision, particularly Justice Roberts’ comment that universities may consider applicants’ discussions of how race affected their lives, has triggered a rapid response from counselors, who are re-evaluating their advising approach. They may be more inclined to advise students of color to amplify their traumas and racialized experiences. However, this guidance burdens students of color in navigating an already stressful process, as they try to tell their stories in ways that do not prompt stereotypes but highlight their unique backgrounds and perspectives.

Looking ahead to the future of nationwide race-neutral admissions policies, it will become evident for admissions offices that removing a student’s identity from their file will present challenges in contextualizing their experiences, as we have learned in California. This negatively impacts individual students whose unique backgrounds and perspectives cannot be fully understood and may be overlooked, thereby harming the future diversity of college campuses nationwide.

While the immediate impact of this decision may not be noticeable, lessons will be learned from these policies in due time. A concerted effort is required on both sides of the desk, involving high school counselors and admissions offices, to promote equitable practices and alleviate the burdens this ruling places on students of color. Through this collective commitment, we can find the best approaches to ensure progress — and avoid going backward. ❋

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