A dream undone? Higher education access and opportunity in a shifting legal landscape

October 7, 2014
  • AACRAO Connect
  • Diversity and Inclusion

The American Council on Education’s (ACE) Center for Policy Research and Strategy—in  partnership with American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, the UCLA Civil Rights Project, Center for College & Career Success in Pearson’s Research and  Innovation Network, National Association for College Admissions Counseling, The College Board, and Education Counsel—has embarked on a groundbreaking study to examine how legal challenges to race-conscious admissions have changed contemporary admissions practices  at selective colleges and universities. 

The research is poised to address the knowledge gap of higher education and create new communication avenues through which institutions can share leading practices and strategies for supporting campus diversity now and in the future.  College admissions policies tend to be closely guarded secrets, which isn’t surprising considering the high stakes and controversy surrounding admissions considerations.  But if “race-neutral alternatives” become the dominant driver for diversity, admissions officers cannot afford to work in an information vacuum. 

Read on for more information and check the end of this article for details on how to participate.


The Supreme Court decisions regarding race-conscious admission policies continue to affect institutions.  Though dispiriting to some, challenges to race-conscious admissions have inspired educators to find new ways to achieve increased diversity and opportunity on college campuses.

Diversity is not only a means of increasing access, but also a way to promote academic and social growth.  The positive impacts of diversity on learning skills and various “democracy outcomes” are especially important during the college years when students are at a critical developmental stage.[1] Higher education organizations have a strong desire to ensure that diversity on college campuses supports intellectual development and social growth. 

In the past, affirmative action was the primary means of promoting diversity on U.S. college campuses. However, efforts to achieve diversity through race-conscious policies in college admissions are endangered.  Since 1996, eight states have maintained bans on race conscious policies through a mix of public referenda, legislation, and executive orders.   In June of 2013, the Court remanded Fisher v. University of Texas to the fifth circuit court of appeals, but not before issuing a warning:   Universities may consider race in admissions, but only after evaluating the effectiveness of “workable-race neutral alternatives.”  Ten months later, the Court upheld the results of a referendum in Michigan that banned race-conscious admissions at public universities.

Opposition to race conscious policies is gaining momentum--but what can admissions deans and enrollment professionals do in the face of these shifting tides? 

According to a recently published book, The Future of Affirmative Action: New Paths to Higher Education Diversity after Fisher v. University of Texas, universities must find new ways to ensure diversity. 

In some states, public institutions have been operating under race-neutral policies for years.  In other states, public and private institutions have begun revisiting and revising their strategies to prepare for a time when race-conscious policies may no longer be allowed. 

One possible “color blind” approach is to employ class-based criteria.  Admissions based on socioeconomic class would increase representation of African American and Hispanic students, who are currently underrepresented at many selective schools.  According to an analysis sited in the June 18 issue of Inside Higher Ed, only four percent of students at 193 selective colleges are African American while only seven percent are Hispanic.    

To participate

The community intends to learn how research, practitioner, and legal communities can better support institutions seeking to enroll diverse student bodies.  AACRAO, ACE and partners are looking towards deans of admissions and vice presidents of enrollments to participate in this confidential survey. 

This survey will form the backbone of the research effort, so participation is critical. Study participants will receive an early embargoed copy of the study and will be invited to participate in dissemination activities including release convenings in the summer of 2015. To take part, visit www.acenet.edu/adreamundone or email admissionssurvey@acenet.edu


[1] Democracy outcomes include perspective taking, citizenship engagement, racial and cultural understanding, and judgment of the compatibility among many groups in a democracy.  Patricia Gurin, Eric L. Dey, Sylvia Hurtado, and Gerald Gurin, “Diversity and Higher Education” Theory and Impact on Educational Outcomes, Harvard Educational Review Fall 2002: 334.


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