What college could look like without race-conscious admissions – implications for students 

    Dr. Michael Nietzel
    Dr. Michael Nietzel

    Dr. Michael Nietzel is a Senior Educational Policy Advisor to the Missouri Governor. He was appointed President of Missouri State University in 2005. He has also worked as the Director of Clinical Psychology at the University of Kentucky, where he was Chair of the Psychology Department, Dean of the Graduate School, and Provost.

    What college could look like without race-conscious admissions – implications for students 

      Due to a 2023 Supreme Court decision, race-conscious college admissions are no longer considered to be constitutional. 

      However, selective colleges that value a diverse student body are finding other ways to ensure that underserved groups have a place.  

      More colleges are encouraging students to address issues of race and diversity in their personal essays. 

      August 1 kicked off the new 2023–24 college admissions season, with the official opening day for the Common App, the undergraduate application platform used by more than 1,000 colleges and universities across the nation.

      This is the first application cycle after the recent Supreme Court decision in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard University and Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) v. University of North Carolina, essentially ending the practice of race-conscious college admissions used at many selective colleges.

      What are race-conscious admissions?  

      In the context of American higher education, race-conscious admissions refer to the practice of considering race or ethnicity as one factor when making decisions about the admission of qualified applicants.

      Because of that decision, a number of institutions have changed their application policies. Some, like Virginia Tech, the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities, Occidental College and Wesleyan University, have already eliminated legacy preferences – the admission bonus given to the children of alumni. More institutions are sure to follow their lead, acknowledging the perceived unfairness of legacy preferences.

      But an even more widespread response has been for institutions to change the optional essay they ask applicants to write as part of their application packet. These changes appear to be an attempt by colleges to still give some consideration to matters of student diversity without violating the Court’s ruling that race-conscious admissions are unconstitutional.

      » ReadAre selective colleges really better? 

      What Chief Justice Roberts wrote

      In his majority opinion for the Court, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, “as all parties agree, nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.” He then added, “but, despite the dissent’s assertion to the contrary, universities may not simply establish through application essays or other means the regime we hold unlawful today.”

      Roberts later elaborated on his suggestion, writing:

      “A benefit to a student who overcame racial discrimination, for example, must be tied to that student’s courage and determination. Or a benefit to a student whose heritage or culture motivated him or her to assume a leadership role or attain a particular goal must be tied to that student’s unique ability to contribute to the university. In other words, the student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual—not on the basis of race.”

      How colleges are changing their essay prompts

      Colleges are now trying to thread the needle that Roberts appears to have handed them. Many are requiring essays that allow students to explain how their race or ethnicity might have affected their lives without violating the prohibition against using race itself as an admission consideration.

      » Read: How to write a great scholarship essay 

      These new application essay prompts take a variety of forms intended to give applicants the opportunity to discuss how their identify, experiences, and backgrounds have shaped their views and interests and why they believe these factors would make them good candidates for admission.

      Here is a small sampling of some of those changes at selective colleges. They highlight the various approaches both private and public colleges are taking to honor the Court’s prohibition of race-conscious admissions while at the same time still demonstrating their commitment to the value of student diversity.

      Harvard University

      Harvard University’s new application eliminated its optional essay and replaced it with these 5 short-answer questions, each of which is required and has a 200-word limit. The first one addresses the diversity issue directly.

      1. Harvard has long recognized the importance of enrolling a diverse student body. How will the life experiences that shape who you are today enable you to contribute to Harvard?
      2. Briefly describe an intellectual experience that was important to you.
      3. Briefly describe any of your extracurricular activities, employment experience, travel, or family responsibilities that have shaped who you are.
      4. How do you hope to use your Harvard education in the future?
      5. Top 3 things your roommates might like to know about you.

      Sarah Lawrence College

      In what is probably the most pointed response to the Supreme Court ruling, Sarah Lawrence College released 3 essay prompts for applicants, who are asked to respond to 1 of them. One of them quotes the exact language Roberts used in his opinion:

      “In a 2023 majority decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, ‘Nothing prohibits universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected the applicant’s life, so long as that discussion is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability that the applicant can contribute to the university,’” the question reads. “Drawing upon examples from your life, a quality of your character, and/or a unique ability you possess, describe how you believe your goals for a college education might be impacted, influenced or affected by the Court’s decision.”

      Columbia University

      Columbia University now includes 5 short-answer questions for applicants to answer. Among the new ones this year are these 2:

      “A hallmark of the Columbia experience is being able to learn and thrive in an equitable and inclusive community with a wide range of perspectives. Tell us about an aspect of your own perspective, viewpoint or lived experience that is important to you, and describe how it has shaped the way you would learn from and contribute to Columbia’s diverse and collaborative community.”

      “In college/university, students are often challenged in ways that they could not predict or anticipate. It is important to us, therefore, to understand an applicant’s ability to navigate through adversity. Please describe a barrier or obstacle you have faced and discuss the personal qualities, skills, or insights you have developed as a result.”

      University of Michigan

      Here’s 1 of the 2 essay prompts being required this year by the University of Michigan:

      “Everyone belongs to many different communities and/or groups defined by (among other things) shared geography, religion, ethnicity, income, cuisine, interest, race, ideology, or intellectual heritage. Choose 1 of the communities to which you belong and describe that community and your place within it.”

      University of Massachusetts

      The University of Massachusetts asks students to write 100-word essays to 2 prompts, 1 of which is:

      “At UMass Amherst, no 2 students are alike. Our communities and groups often define us and shape our individual worlds. Community can refer to various aspects, including shared geography, religion, race/ethnicity, income, ideology, and more. Please choose 1 of your communities or groups and describe its significance. Explain how, as a product of this community or group, you would enrich our campus.”

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      What do the changes mean for students?

      There is no doubt that with race-conscious admissions now legally prohibited, colleges interested in increasing or maintaining the racial diversity of their student bodies will need to turn to new methods to do so. Several options are available, including:

      • an intensified outreach to high schools or communities containing a higher percentage of minority students;
      • a greater emphasis on recruiting and financially supporting a more socioeconomically diverse class, which is also likely to include a greater representation of racial minorities;
      • the use of a plan like that used in Texas that guarantees admission of the top 10% of graduating students from every high school to the state’s selective public universities; and
      • a more detailed analysis of personal essays to identify students whose lived experiences bring multiple strengths to a campus.

      What is clear is that personal essays are now likely to carry more weight in admission decisions at selective universities, placing an added burden on students who want to use them to demonstrate how their personal backgrounds have influenced their preparation and qualifications for college success.

      » Read: What colleges are looking for in applicants 

      Changing the essay prompts is the easy part, however. How institutions evaluate students’ answers as they make admission decisions that are consistent with the Supreme Court’s new standard remains the big challenge.

      Here’s what is also clear:

      First, nothing prohibits students from writing about how their race or ethnicity has influenced their lives, their ability to cope with adversity, what they want to study in college, or the contributions they can make to an institution. Colleges can still ask about such matters, and students can write about them.

      Second, many colleges don’t ask institution-specific essay questions, relying instead on the Common App’s traditional prompts.

      • For example, one asks applicants to share a “background, identity, interest or talent” that is meaningful to them.
      • Another asks, “the lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

      In response, students are free to include reflections on whatever personal characteristics or challenges they believe are the most important influences for them.

      Third, the extent to which selective colleges are modifying their unique essay prompts suggests that they remain committed to the value of student diversity and are searching for ways to enroll in an undergraduate study body that reflects that value.

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