6 strategies colleges are using after ban on race-conscious admissions

    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.

    6 strategies colleges are using after ban on race-conscious admissions

      The Supreme Court’s ban is reshaping the college admissions landscape.

      Colleges are introducing new policies and procedures to legally accomplish their student diversity goals.

      Ending legacy admissions, guaranteeing spots for top high school performers, and amplifying need-based financial aid are some examples. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

      The 2024-2025 college admissions cycle has begun. The next year will be watched particularly closely as it marks the first cycle since the Supreme Court ruling that banned race-conscious admissions. (See Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard University and Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) v. University of North Carolina.)

      For hundreds of low-selectivity institutions that accept all or nearly all applicants meeting their requirements, the Court’s decision will have little impact on their admission policies and practices.

      But for the dozens of selective colleges and universities that had formerly considered student race or ethnicity as one factor in making their offers of admission, the question becomes how to promote racial and ethnic diversity on their campuses – a value many have continued to proclaim following the decision – and not run afoul of the new prohibition against race-conscious admissions?

      While the post-SFFA landscape is still taking shape, we already can see colleges turning to several policies and procedures aimed at legally accomplishing their student diversity goals. Here are 6 of the leading examples.

      1. Revamping student essays

      One of the more immediate responses has been institutions modifying the personal essays applicants are asked to write as part of their applications. These changes are an attempt to give students an opportunity to write about how their personal experiences and identities – which could include race – have shaped their development and interests.

      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…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 this observation as follows:

      “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.”

      Colleges are now trying to find the best way to use the narrow opening into discussions of race that Roberts appears to have handed them.

      Many are introducing essay prompts that give applicants the chance to describe how their identity, experiences, and backgrounds make them good candidates for admission.

      For example, Sarah Lawrence College now uses 3 essay prompts, one of which 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.”

      2. Ending legacy admissions

      A number of institutions have changed their application policies by eliminating other types of admissions advantages they’ve extended in the past. The most obvious of these advantages are legacy admissions, where the relatives of an institution’s alumni are given an admission bonus.

      In light of the Supreme Court’s ban, Virginia Tech, the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities, Occidental College, Carleton College and Wesleyan University, have already eliminated legacy preferences, joining many other selective institutions, like Johns Hopkins University, Amherst College, and the California Institute of Technology, that had already done so prior to the Court’s ruling.

      More institutions will probably join the trend. For example, Princeton University and Brown University have formed committees to re-examine their admission policies, including the use of legacy preferences.

      3. Guaranteeing admissions to top 10% of high school seniors

      Public universities are looking at admission policies that would guarantee admission to high school seniors who rank in the top 10% of their graduating class. This approach aims to improve access for students from inner-city and rural high schools, using geography as a proxy for racial diversity.

      The state of Texas serves as a precedent for these plans. Over 20 years ago, Texas implemented an automatic admissions policy for high school graduates in the top 10% of their class. This move followed a ruling by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals which banned affirmative action in college admissions within its jurisdiction.

      Although the effects of the policy on student racial diversity have been less than what many proponents anticipated, public institutions in at least a dozen other states, including Arizona and Florida, now offer some form of guaranteed admissions to students based on high school standing.

      The University of Tennessee (UT) is the most recent public institution to opt for a top 10% plan. Beginning in fall 2024, UT will guarantee admission to high school seniors in the state who apply by the early admission deadline and rank in the top 10% of their graduating classes or have a 4.0 or better high-school GPA.

      UT has stated that they believe the policy will “expand access, recruit more of Tennessee’s top-performing students to the university, and promote greater geographic representation from across the state.”

      4. Increasing need-based financial aid

      Several selective institutions are making a greater investment in need-based financial aid, an attempt to address racial diversity through the socioeconomic proxy of low family income.
      For example, Duke University recently announced that, beginning this fall, it would offer full tuition grants for undergraduate students from North Carolina and South Carolina whose annual family income was $150,000 or less. For Duke students who live in the Carolinas and have yearly family incomes of $65,000 or less, the university will cover all tuition, “plus financial assistance for housing, meals and some course materials or other campus expenses, without the need for student loans.”

      Starting with the incoming class in 2024, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will attempt to expand student diversity by covering the cost of tuition and required fees for undergraduates from North Carolina whose families make less than $80,000 annually.

      Explaining the new policy, UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said, “We want to make sure students know financial constraints should not stand in the way of their dreams.”

      Washington University in St. Louis has announced it will adopt a “no-loan” financial aid policy beginning in fall 2024. It plans to remove federal loans from undergraduate financial aid packages and replace them with scholarships and university grants.

      “We are deeply committed to making a WashU education accessible for all talented students who earn admission,” Chancellor Andrew D. Martin said. “We have worked hard to make good on our promise to remove financial barriers for all admitted undergraduate students, regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds.”

      5. Enhancing recruiting and outreach

      Several institutions are enhancing their recruiting and outreach efforts to better connect with communities where they have historically seen limited student engagement.

      Others are trying to gain a stronger presence in traditionally underserved communities by offering dual enrollment courses to some of the nation’s poorest high schools, which also happen to educate large numbers of minority students.

      » Read: The best colleges for low-income students

      An example is National Education Equity Lab, an education justice nonprofit, that has enlisted schools like Princeton, Stanford, Georgetown, Cornell, Wesleyan University, the University of Pennsylvania, Spelman College, Brown University, and Arizona State University to deliver college-credit-bearing courses taught by their faculty.

      By the end of this year, Ed Equity will have reached over 15,000 students in more than 100 school districts across 29 states. It’s a very effective way for selective universities to forge connections with different groups of students and encourage their subsequent enrollment.

      6. Committing to not consider race in admissions

      Finally, some institutions are playing it cautiously and have formally pledged to not consider race in their future admission or financial aid policies. Yale University offers an example of this strategy, which it used to persuade Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) to drop its lawsuit against the university over its use of race-conscious admissions.

      In exchange for the lawsuit being dismissed, Yale agreed to make several changes in its admissions policies going forward. For example, the university pledged to update its training materials for admissions staff to emphasize the ban against considering race in the processing of applications. It also said it would take steps to make sure nobody involved in admissions had access to data on the race of individual applicants. And it promised that it would not use race to make any financial aid awards.

      This last concession was made even though Yale already had a policy of not considering race when allocating institutional financial aid. Expect more universities to revamp their policies using the Yale commitments as something of a template. Hopefully, those that do will also emulate Yale’s decisions to make additional investments in student outreach and recruiting and to offer a summer enrichment program aimed at attracting more students from underrepresented backgrounds.

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