Race, class, and college access: Achieving diversity in a shifting legal landscape

November 17, 2015
  • AACRAO Connect
  • Diversity and Inclusion
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Higher education continues to wrestle with the ramifications of recent Supreme Court rulings and state activity affecting race-conscious admission policies.  The American Council on Education’s (ACE) Center for Policy Research and Strategy, in partnership with the Civil Rights Project at UCLA and Pearson’s Center for College and Career Success, released an in-depth report this summer examining how legal challenges to race-conscious admissions are influencing admissions practices at selective colleges and universities across the nation.  The report, prepared with support from AACRAO, NACAC, the College Board and EducationCounsel, is especially timely considering the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to once again review Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin.  Indeed, as Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed notes in his article, “Defending Affirmative Action,” the higher education community is actively participating in the review process. 

ACE recently filed an amicus brief in support of the University of Texas on behalf of itself and 37 other higher education groups.  Four organizations expert on the admissions process – AACRAO, the College Board, the Law School Admissions Council, and NACAC – also filed a brief in support of Texas.  The briefs argue that diversity has distinct educational benefits, and that schools do not need judicial instruction on how to build a class. The AACRAO brief goes into great detail about the value and role of the holistic review process in meeting mission-critical institutional diversity goals. The brief argues that, “Precluding consideration of race and ethnicity would, for many institutions, undermine their ability to consider every relevant facet of an individual applicant and to achieve the institution’s broader goals.”

AACRAO was fortunate to have the authors of the ACE report share their research and insights at our 25th Annual Strategic Enrollment Management (SEM) Conference in Hollywood, Florida.  Dr. Lorelle Espinosa, Assistant Vice President for ACE’s Center for Policy Research and Strategy, and Dr. Matthew Gaertner, Senior Scientist in the Center for College and Career Success at Pearson, shared the findings of their groundbreaking survey study. The report is one of many research products that Espinosa’s center is producing on what she calls, “reimagining diversity and equity in higher education in the 21st century.”

Hoping to understand how legal challenges to race-conscious admissions have changed and are changing contemporary admissions practices, ACE administered this first-of-its-kind national survey of undergraduate admissions and enrollment management leaders in 2014-2015; never before has a national admissions survey gone into this type of depth on the legal landscape. The data in the report reflect responses from 338 nonprofit four-year institutions that collectively enrolled 2.7 million students and fielded over 3 million applications for admission in 2013-2014.  The research is intended to address a critical knowledge gap in 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.   


Strategies Utilized by Colleges to Support Diversity

Educators recognize that diversity on our college campuses benefits society on multiple levels, including by preparing students for a 21st century workforce.  Diversity benefits students by encouraging cross group understanding and collaboration, breaking down stereotypes, and providing an environment to engage in critical thinking and problem solving activities among a diverse peer group.  Yet undergraduate admissions and enrollment management leaders face a conundrum: how do they maintain the benefits of diversity given legal challenges to their current practices? 

The ACE survey investigated what institutions are doing to maintain the diversity of their student bodies. The five most commonly used diversity strategies are:

  1. Creating transfer pathways through articulation agreements (82% of institutions)
  2. Targeted recruitment and outreach to encourage racial/ethnic minority students to apply (78% of institutions)
  3. Enhanced recruitment and additional consideration for community college transfers (76% of institutions)
  4. Holistic application review (76% of institutions)
  5. Targeted recruitment to encourage low-income and/or first-generation students to apply (71% of institutions)

As Espinosa pointed out, this list is heavy on recruitment and outreach, something that the public narrative doesn’t address given the laser-like focus on the admissions decision moment itself; a trend that needs to shift.  Also of note, given AACRAO’s focus on holistic review in its amicus brief, holistic review is one of two diversity strategies found to be both widely used and widely effective according to the ACE data.

The five least commonly used diversity strategies are:

1-Targeted financial aid for racial/ethnic minorities (34% of institutions)

2-Reduced emphasis on SAT/ACT scores (33% of institutions)

3-Reduced emphasis on legacy admissions (24% of institutions)

4-Test-optional admissions (16% of institutions)

5-Percentage plans (13% of institutions)

Importantly, the findings of the survey study further demonstrate that striving for student body diversity is not an “either/or” but rather a “both/and” proposition. As the authors shared, institutions that consider race in the admissions process use other race-conscious and race-neutral diversity strategies more often and find them more effective than institutions that use race-neutral strategies alone. 

Post-Fisher Changes and Needed Guidance

Matthew Gaertner shared how institutions have reacted to the first Fisher decision, with the most change occurring in institutions’ use of diversity strategies (not in the admissions decision making process).  Increased importance was placed on the recruitment of community college transfer students (23 percent of institutions) and low-income students (22 percent of institutions). 

Colleges and universities across the selectivity spectrum are eager for research findings and guidance in the context of Fisher.  When presented with four areas for additional research or guidance that could be helpful, participants prioritized them as follows:

  1. Research on the educational impact of campus diversity (58% overall; 74% of more selective private institutions)
  2. Research on how to define and achieve a “critical mass” of diverse students (54% overall; 82% more selective public institutions)
  3. Research on the diversity effects of admissions strategies where race-conscious practices are prohibited (42% overall; 64% of more selective public institutions)
  4. Research on how to assess the diversity effects of alternatives to race-conscious admissions (38% overall; 69% of more selective private institutions) 

A major takeaway from the research is that higher education is still trying to come to grips with the shifting legal landscape.  There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution.  As Gaertner noted at the close of the AACRAO SEM presentation, diversity strategies are highly context-dependent. What works at one institution may not directly transfer to another, so modifications will need to be made.  







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