The Role of Race in Admissions Policies: More Questions Than Answers?

RJ Nichol
Sep 5, 2017

The role affirmative action may be able to play in future university admissions policies is back in the news, and the unanswered questions about strategies for ensuring diversity on campus are likely to have significant implications for applicants and admissions professionals alike.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016 upheld the legality of race-based admissions policies, a recent New York Times article has revealed that the Department of Justice may now be preparing to look at legal maneuvers to challenges such guidelines. As a result, schools and potential students may need to consider new ways to ensure that their efforts to foster diverse and inclusive student bodies stand up to future scrutiny.

That, in turn, has cast new light on the importance and benefits of relying on more “holistic reviews” of candidates during the admissions process.

Under New Scrutiny

According to the August, 1, 2017 New York Times report, the administration of President Donald Trump, “is preparing to redirect resources of the Justice Department’s civil rights division toward investigating and suing universities over affirmative action admissions policies deemed to discriminate against white applicants.”

The article, based on an internal Justice Department document obtained by the newspaper, described the civil rights division’s plans to seek lawyers “interested in working for a new project on ‘investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions.’” The Justice Department declined to comment on the report.

A Supreme Test

The revelation of the Justice Department’s apparent plans to scrutinize race-based admissions policies comes in the wake of a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that affirmed the constitutionality of a University of Texas affirmative action policy that includes the consideration of applicants’ race.

Abigail Fisher, a white applicant who had been denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin in 2008, filed a lawsuit alleging that the school discriminated against her because of her race.

Under the university’s so-called “Top Ten” plan, the majority of available incoming freshman slots are reserved for Texas high school students who graduated in the top 10% of their class. The rest of the university’s incoming freshman are then selected based on a variety of factors, including race. Fisher did not graduate in the top 10% of her high school class, and subsequently asserted that she was denied entry because she is white.

Before the case was finally settled by the Supreme Court, a lower court had also ruled against Fisher, citing the university’s right to consider race in an effort to support diversity on campus. The highest court in the land echoed that decision, albeit with a warning that such policies still need to be scrutinized and potentially updated.

In spelling out the Court’s split (4-3) ruling, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote:

“A university is in large part defined by those intangible ‘qualities which are incapable of objective measurement but which make for greatness’… Considerable deference is owed to a university in defining those intangible characteristics, like student body diversity, that are central to its identity and educational mission. But still, it remains an enduring challenge to our Nation’s education system to reconcile the pursuit of diversity with the constitutional promise of equal treatment and dignity.”

Justice Kennedy also stated that, “[a]lthough admissions officers can consider race as a positive feature of a minority student’s application, there is no dispute that race is but a ‘factor of a factor of a factor’ in the holistic review calculus.”

In a dissenting opinion, however, Justice Samuel Alito wrote:

“The University has still not identified with any degree of specificity the interests that its use of race and ethnicity is supposed to serve. Its primary argument is that merely invoking ‘the educational benefits of diversity’ is sufficient and that it need not identify any metric that would allow a court to determine whether its plan is needed to serve, or is actually serving, those interests.”

Despite the ruling in favor of the University of Texas, the issue is likely to arise again. In delivering the Supreme Court’s majority opinion, Justice Kennedy also warned that the affirmation of the school’s policy, “does not necessarily mean the University may rely on that same policy without refinement. It is the University’s ongoing obligation to engage in constant deliberation and continued reflection regarding its admissions policies.”

That caveat — and the Justice Department’s recently reported intention to scrutinize race-based admissions policies — seems to indicate that university professionals as well as potential students may still lack the clarity they need in order to achieve their admissions-related goals.

Focusing on Goals, Finding the Tools

One thing remains clear, however: The debate over the future of race-based admissions policies has probably not been settled — and will likely continue to have significant repercussions on the role of diversity on campus.

For example, an ongoing investigation by the Justice Department is looking into allegations made by a coalition of Asian-American organizations that Harvard University has employed racial quotas that discriminate against students of Asian descent.

Elsewhere, there have been discussions about responding to perceived threats against affirmative action by implementing new policies to help ensure diversity in universities, such as admissions policies that give preference to students based on income rather than race.

Regardless of future judicial or administrative decisions affecting the outlook for diversity in the world of higher education, now is the time for admissions professionals to ensure that they have all the tools necessary to make the most well-informed decisions regarding which applicants they admit. For example, tools that allow you to holistically review applicants by streamlining and maximizing your application process are likely to support your ongoing diversity initiatives in the most efficient manner possible.

Of course, that involves looking at factors including, but not limited to, race. After all, diversity initiatives may take into account more than just skin color, embracing factors such as ethnicity, nationality, sexuality identity, and “real-world” work and academic experience.

Holistic Review is Easier with CAS™

“When it comes to holistic admissions, some factors are easier than others to integrate into your review,” shared Robert Ruiz, Liaison’s VP of strategic enrollment and a former director of admissions. “During my nearly three decades in admissions, I found metrics to be simple — they’re represented by test scores and GPAs. Experiences are easy to collect, but harder to quantify. For instance, how much value do you give an applicant’s work experience in an unrelated field?” Attributes, on the other hand, are difficult to quantify and difficult to communicate as well. “After all, what signifies leadership?”

Segmenting applications for review isn’t necessarily innovative. “Many paper-driven offices print PDFs and make liberal use of whiteout to help remove bias, but technology built for the admissions process offers a much more efficient way,” added Ruiz.

Specifically, Liaison’s Centralized Application Service (CAS™) provides flexibility around what data is displayed for each user or for user groups. While all of the standard application data is collected through CAS, a group of users can be assigned to metrics, another group can be assigned to experiences and another can be assigned to attributes — there’s no limitation on how much information you display or hide throughout your application review process.

By making it easy for applicants and schools to achieve their entire range of educational and societal goals, CAS will help your campus thrive regardless of any uncertainty that may linger regarding the future of race-based admissions and on-campus diversity.

RJ Nichol

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Over the last three decades, Liaison has helped over 40,000 programs on more than 1,200 campuses more effectively manage admissions through its Centralized Application Service (CAS™) technology and complementary application processing and support services. The higher education technology leader supports its partner institutions’ total enrollment goals by pairing CAS with its Enrollment Marketing (EM) platform as well as the recently acquired TargetX (CRM) and advanced analytics software Othot.