For at least a decade prior to the COVID pandemic, analysts, commentators, and experts of all varieties were convinced that higher education was ripe for disruption. Rising costs, declining public sentiment, rigid administrative structures, aging curriculum, and many other elements of US higher education served as the carousel of issues presented as most likely to disrupt the entire industry. Now tentatively operating in a post-pandemic environment, most who watch and work in higher education have acknowledged that regular disruptions are going to be the defining characteristic of the higher education industry for the foreseeable future.
The Scotus Ruling on Affirmative Action
In July of 2023, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruled on affirmative action with a case brought against several universities claiming racial discrimination in admission. The 6-3 ruling favored the complainants, ultimately citing the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment as an impenetrable bulwark against ANY consideration of protected status characteristics like race or ethnicity in the admission process.
Despite broad anticipation of the ruling, there has been much confusion on the best path forward for schools that want to ensure the progress they’ve made to be more inclusive. Since the Supreme Court ruling, there have been a wide variety of responses from colleges and universities across the nation, from pausing all admissions at high-profile institutions for thorough compliance reviews to a ‘business as usual’ approach in the states that legislated away the consideration of race in the evaluation process years ago.
Determining the best path forward doesn’t need to be so complicated. It is incredibly important to recognize that the collection of data does not, and will not, make a school non-compliant. And, while it is understandable that some schools are choosing a very conservative approach, to many commentators, it looks like an overcorrection.
Nine states have been operating under legislation mandating race-blind admissions for years now, and they accomplish it by creating clear policies around the legitimate use of the data admissions committees encounter. Based on the reading of most experts, the distinction is very clear. The Supreme Court ruling does not say schools must hide race and ethnicity from everyone, it says schools cannot have explicit policies to admit based on race; there is a clear distinction.
So where do you go from here?
Here are three things higher education leadership can do to build admissions resilience in the face of the recent SCOTUS decision.
1. Make a Plan
Change management is not typically thought of as the most common strength of university leadership, but building a plan goes a long way toward understanding how change affects different areas of a process. Now is a great time to work across the many functional areas of the university to seek guidance. Offices like General Counsel and university-level enrollment management will have formal prescriptions on how each part of the enrollment function might change and what messaging should look like. College and unit leadership will be able to translate those institutional imperatives into formal tactics. Armed with information from university and functional leadership, engage with your enrollment teams to review all current policy and think through the ways in which your process is criteria-agnostic. Compose a formal statement to include as part of annual planning for the admissions process and mission/vision statement updates. Use these conversations to build a plan that reflects both the institution’s compliance with the recent ruling AND the ways in which DEI efforts will persist, too.
2. Coordinate Cross-Functional Collaboration
Virtually every institution in the nation has embraced diversity and inclusion as a fundamental, formal element of institutional purpose. Access as a philosophical imperative for universities is not a controversial point and hasn’t been for decades; diversity is now considered to be basic table stakes for any conversation. Given the general concern coming out of the SCOTUS decision that other DEI-focused initiatives will be declared unreasonable in subsequent decisions, this is a great time to bring together a cross-functional group to revisit institutional DEI efforts both formal and informal.
Remember, the decision holds that race cannot be a consideration when deciding whether or not to admit, which leaves many options available. Solicit support from affinity groups, alumni groups, and student organizations to find new ways to recruit and retain diverse student populations. Some schools are turning to scholarship programs, highly targeted recruitment strategies, and Greek life engagement to more formally engage the campus stakeholders in how to ensure institutional priorities around DEI are clearly described, enshrined in places like performance evaluations, and that all are accountable for their success.
3. Engage Partners
In addition to the support schools can find by partnering with affinity groups and campus stakeholders to expand access for members of historically marginalized groups, schools should be looking to professional associations and discipline-specific academic societies for guidance on how to ensure the persistence of DEI efforts across camps. Schools can seek out formal relationships with focused representation organizations like the National Society for Hispanic MBAs (NSHMBA) or the National Black MBA Association (NBMBAA) in grad business; these organizations exist for virtually every discipline and many are also geography-based. There are also national organizations like the National Society for Hispanic MBAs (NSHMBA) or the National Black MBA Association (NBMBAA) in grad business; these organizations exist for virtually every discipline and many are also geography-based. There are also national organizations like the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), and the National Association for Graduate Admissions Professionals (NAGAP) that have formal guidance and informal discussion forums for helping enrollment leaders determine a path forward that serves all institutions and populations.
In this dynamic educational environment, where change is the new constant, the focus on student success and inclusivity remains unwavering. By embracing change, refining DEI efforts, and cultivating partnerships, higher education institutions can adapt and thrive, ultimately ensuring a more equitable and enriching educational experience for all students.
Liaison is uniquely positioned to help schools plan a tactical approach to successful – and compliant – diversity recruitment. Tools like Intelligent Names facilitate highly targeted outreach, advanced analytics engines like Othot identify high-impact activities designed to move candidates through the pipeline toward enrollment, outreach automation tools like EMP produce customized, curated marketing experiences for prospects, and Centralized Application Services (CAS) eliminate barriers in the application process.
The progress of the last several decades in improving access to – and representation in – higher education for underrepresented groups has built great momentum toward establishing a culture of inclusivity as a core value of the industry. The moment can and should be used as a galvanizing event for renewing these critically important efforts, and Liaison is proud to partner with institutions to ensure their efforts will continue to redefine the ways we provide access to the transformative power of higher education.