Race-conscious admissions is out. Here are my predictions for colleges in the post-SCOTUS landscape.
Updated: Jul 3
The Supreme Court’s decision outlawing race-conscious admissions (“affirmative action,” popularly) isn’t just wrong because it flies in the face of decades of precedent and ignores the role of race and diversity in a transformative education. It’s wrong because it assumes that elite universities and highly selective admissions are the best and most appropriate lens from which to discuss and define a transformative education.
This article was originally published on July 2nd, 2023 on LinkedIn.
Colleges will no longer be able to consider an applicant’s race directly, but they are allowed to consider narratives around culture and struggle. They also still have access to plenty of information around gender, socioeconomic status, demographics (including zip code), region, high school, level of education attained by parents, participation in college access initiatives like Upward Bound, and more.
Here are my predictions for the next 1-3 years as colleges pivot after the SCOTUS decision.
1) HYPSM will be just fine – but others will suffer. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, MIT. All the famous, fancy schools have released statements bemoaning the SCOTUS decision as an attack on their annual claim that “this year we were able to admit our most diverse class ever!” In full context, famous colleges are carefully weighing a great number of priorities behind the scenes as they admit applicants… not only race, but legacy status, wealthy donor status, and niche sports. With their resources, expensive consultants, and elite brands, they can crank the dial on any priority they like and create any class they like.
Remove the race question, and the elite institutions are still incredibly well-positioned to achieve their institutional goals. These universities will get creative in their outreach efforts, evaluation metrics, processes, partnerships, and pipelines.
The universities that will not be high-powered to create diverse classes will be small schools, rural schools, and schools with affordable tuition. Schools like Juniata College and Clark University, working hard to make their classes more diverse, will be working in the dark, and they don’t have HYPSM resources to get quite as creative. And schools that don’t work that hard on diversity (I’ve decided not to name them) now have both an excuse and a lack of information to do even the minimal work.
2) Applications and essays will change. Justice Roberts left a clear opening for institutions to achieve their diversity priorities by admitting students with compelling stories about their culture or identity. As college supplemental essay prompts are released around this time each year in the late summer, expect more essay questions about culture and identity.
Beyond that, I expect students will feel pressured by peers, parents, and Reddit to write their Common App Personal Statement – the one essay that goes to all the colleges on the Common App – about a struggle or challenge related to their race. This is a shame, because students should be using that space to tell their own personal and authentic stories about whatever is most meaningful to them. It’s a no-win situation because either they’ll miss out on that chance or they’ll be rewarded for the disclosure, which would encourage more students to do that in future years and impersonalize the college admissions process even more than it is now.
A potential solution: Common App could create an optional identity prompt that all students would be able to answer. As long as students share their experience in narrative form, the university can use it in their evaluation.
3) Artificial intelligence will be trained to recognize racial identifiers.
Have you ever had that feeling that ChatGPT knows more about you than you share in your input? Do you ever feel anxious thinking about what it will be able to know or predict in two years, five years, or ten years?
If artificial intelligence is primed to rebuild the entire healthcare system in the U.S., it can absolutely handle the task of reading a teenager’s college essay and predicting their race…. And, likely, predicting even more than that.
In case you’ve been wondering – yes, colleges are already using AI in their admissions processes. With fewer SAT/ACT scores to distinguish applicants from a glance, universities are taking different approaches to using AI to make the pile smaller or more targeted to their priorities. So, it’s already happening, and this train is definitely going to move forward, not backward.
4) Institutions will get more creative about their outreach and recruitment efforts.
Minority students are not usually the ones obsessing about HYPSM and debating which activities are more impressive for their applications – at least not in my experience. In my region, low-income Latinx students are wondering if college is right for them, and if they decide it is, how they can earn an affordable degree while staying close to home. So, it stands to reason that universities can increase their diversity by reaching out, starting dialogues, and creating incentives for these students to apply. As I mentioned earlier, very financially healthy universities, especially the ones with large endowments, will have the flexibility to get very adventurous with their recruitment efforts. There’s really no financial risk to over-recruiting low-income students. So, for Tulane, why not just double the size of their local college access initiative in New Orleans (which is 59% Black)? How hard would it be for Penn to schedule 100 college access workshops in inner city Philadelphia, with application fee waivers for every family who completes the FAFSA in the session? Could USC’s Alumni Foundation establish an annual fund and award 200 scholarships just to Latinx students whose Personal Statement stories touch on their culture? I will say, it’s a lot of work to convince the low-income Latinx students in my area to attend university in another state – much more work than it takes to convince 5 middle-class white students to apply. (Just tell them, “you won’t know if you don’t try!” That usually does the trick.) But I predict the SCOTUS decision will push colleges to try harder.
5) Institutions will continue to avoid the real work.
Low-income, minority students are the group that an elite university education is proven to help the most, changing their maximum lifetime earning potential by a number of degrees and enabling them to begin creating generational wealth for their families.
However, the ability of an elite university to lift up a few low-income and minority students really only applies to those who navigate society’s challenges most skillfully. From an early age, they have to access advanced math tracks that they’re frequently locked out of without an advocate. Without generational wealth, they may have enormous home responsibilities and high-stakes, time-consuming jobs. Without educational and college access resources, they outperform the odds in under-resourced schools that may not have college-going cultures. I celebrate these students who earn coveted admissions spots at selective colleges, against the odds.
But what about the rest, who weren’t able or positioned to apply, much less to be selected?
And, beyond college acceptances, what is the responsibility – if any – of elite colleges to use their resources, position, and brand to improve opportunities for K-12 students and schools?
Lee Bollinger, President of Columbia University, said in a podcast interview in 2022 that secondary education simply has nothing to do with his institution. Disappointing, right?
Not just HYPSM, but a great number of institutions have the power to actively create or improve educational opportunities for high school students, to partner with schools to improve learning outcomes, to advise on curriculum, to educate parents, to create community funds and specify spending priorities, to identify at-risk students and change their trajectories, and promote social justice and equity as young as kindergarten.
If institutions were to view the real task as facilitating low-income and minority youth to become successful applicants, instead of just selecting the ones that make it to the pile, those universities would have much less need for the diversity checkbox anyway.
Of course, I won’t hold my breath too long.
Robert Powers is the founder of College Torch and a college consultant who specializes in helping LGBTQ+ students discover and apply to safe, happy, supportive colleges. If you're the parent of an LGBTQ+ teen or college student, you can join College Torch's Parents of LGBTQ+ College-Bound Students community on Facebook.
By the way, skipping LGBTQ+ considerations during the college search can lead to an uncomfortable or unsafe college experience for your teen. Download my completely free resource, 10 College Campus Red Flags for LGBTQ+ Students, to learn what you should observe on your teen's college visits.