A Month After the Fall of Affirmative Action, How Can Colleges Uphold Diversity?

After Supreme Court’s decision on June 29 effectively ended race-conscious admissions, universities and colleges rushed to reaffirm their commitments to ensuring student body diversity. But their statements left an important question unanswered: How?
By Neil H. Shah

Admissions offices like Harvard's are being asked to contend with severe restrictions on race-conscious admissions — and now face the challenge of maintaining diversity while complying with the Supreme Court.
Admissions offices like Harvard's are being asked to contend with severe restrictions on race-conscious admissions — and now face the challenge of maintaining diversity while complying with the Supreme Court. By Marina Qu

After the Supreme Court effectively ended race-conscious admissions in higher education, Harvard and other selective institutions now face unprecedented public scrutiny as they ensure their admissions processes comply with the new legal mandate.

As schools processed the Supreme Court’s decision on June 29, universities and colleges rushed to reaffirm their commitments to ensuring student body diversity. But their statements left an important question unanswered: How?

In the month since the decision, that question has been at the forefront of higher education discourse, with professors publishing opinion pieces and the U.S. Department of Education going so far as to convene a summit on Wednesday to discuss potential answers.

While some experts foresee incremental change to admissions, such as continued expansions to financial aid programs, others believe the Court’s decision foretells a systemic overhaul, from the end of legacy and donor preferences to affirmative action based on socioeconomic background.

With the Common Application portal opening for college applicants on Tuesday, here’s what we know one month after the Supreme Court’s decision about what could be next for college admissions.

Learning From the Past

This isn’t the first time that American colleges and universities have grappled with how to uphold commitments to diversity without explicitly considering race. Before the recent affirmative action decision, race-conscious admissions for public schools had already been banned in eight states.

In 1996, California voters approved a ballot measure that barred the state’s public universities from considering race, ethnicity, and gender in college admissions. Following this ban on affirmative action, the University of California system experienced a significant drop in racial diversity on its campuses.

At the University of California, Berkeley, Black students represented approximately 6.32 percent of the school’s incoming class in 1995. Just three years later in 1998 — after the ban — that number nearly halved, declining to approximately 3.37 percent. In 2022, Black students made up approximately 3.39 percent of enrolled freshmen at Berkeley and about 4.68 percent of enrolled freshmen in the UC system at large.

The University of Michigan, which stopped practicing race-conscious admissions in 2006, saw a similar shift in its undergraduate population, experiencing a significant drop in Black and Native American enrollment — 44 and 90 percent, according to the university in 2022.

UC Berkeley Economics professor David E. Card — who testified as an expert witness for Harvard in the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard case — said he believes public colleges following this decision will end up at some point between “where Berkeley was” and “where Berkeley ended up,” which he said was “still below where they were before but a little bit closer to representation.”

Both the UC system and the University of Michigan wrote in amicus briefs submitted to the Supreme Court that race-neutral methods are likely insufficient for creating racial diversity at selective colleges and universities at a comparable level to race-conscious admissions.

The UC system and the University of Michigan have since employed a variety of strategies to increase racial diversity on their respective campuses, including increasing outreach to first-generation and low-income students, decreasing reliance on standardized tests, and implementing holistic admissions.

While the UC system’s new admissions practices have been unable to replicate levels of diversity achieved by race-conscious admissions, some administrators believe that their recent progress towards diversity makes them a model for private schools to follow after the Court’s decision.

“While the UC system is not as diverse as the state of California, it’s way more diverse than places like UVA or University of Michigan or other sort of similar institutions,” said Jon Boeckenstedt, a vice provost for enrollment management at Oregon State University. “I don’t know anything about the review system at UC but they’re obviously doing something right.”

“My guess is that private selective institutions could learn a lot by the way that the UC system does college admissions,” Boeckenstedt added.

Considering Adversity

In public remarks less than three hours after the Supreme Court effectively struck down affirmative action, President Joe Biden called for the creation of a new standard for college admissions — one that would consider adversity that students had overcome.

Biden said that after applicants had demonstrated their qualification by having the “GPA and test scores to meet the schools’ standards,” schools should consider the adversity that applicants may have faced in doing so — such as a lack of financial means, where they attended high school, or experiences of racial discrimination.

These calls — that schools should do more to contextualize applicants in light of their lived experiences — have been echoed across higher education following the Supreme Court’s ruling, which allows colleges to consider applicants’ stories of how race impacted them as individuals.

“Most selective colleges need to do a much better job of increasing diversity among the student body including by race, by class, and I think the way to get at that is by paying much more attention to what are the educational opportunities that person has had,” said Natasha K. Warikoo, a Sociology professor at Tufts University.

Warikoo recommended colleges and universities consider where applicants grew up, the educational opportunities available to them, and how “race or ethnicity or identity” has impacted their lives — in part through application essays. They acknowledged that these efforts might not have the same impact on racial diversity as race-based affirmative action.

“Admissions offices are going to be trying to do this with one hand tied behind their backs because they’re not able to do it in a race-conscious way,” Warikoo added.

According to Boston University associate professor Anthony Abraham Jack, the Supreme Court’s allowance for the consideration of applicants’ stories of how race has impacted their lives was problematic as he believes it will lead to Black and brown students being pressured to write about racial discrimination and adversity for a better chance at admission.

“That was already part and parcel of admissions — especially for Black and brown people — and it’s actually sickening,” Jack said. “Why do we have to pimp out our trauma for a shot at one of these schools?”

Other admissions experts — including Richard D. Kahlenberg ’85, who was an expert witness for SFFA — have called for schools to give greater consideration to a particular form of adversity: socioeconomic status.

During the SFFA v. Harvard trial, Kahlenberg — a professorial lecturer at George Washington University’s School of Public Policy and Administration — argued through statistical modeling that class-based affirmative action, universities could increase both socioeconomic and racial diversity without explicitly considering race.

In his simulation — which assumed no preferences for race, legacies, donors, and athletic recruits — Kahlenberg assigned a boost of “half-athlete preference,” or half the boost he claims recruited athletes receive in Harvard’s admissions process, to students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds.

Harvard contested that conclusion at trial, arguing that the level of diversity achieved by using socioeconomic status-based preferences would fall short of that achieved via race-conscious admissions.

Card — Harvard’s expert witness — also simulated racial diversity in Harvard’s admitted classes if the school gave preferences to students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds and eliminated preferences for race, legacies, donors, and athletic recruits. Card’s simulation gave a boost for socioeconomic status that was approximately half of that awarded in Kahlenberg’s simulations.

In his analysis, while Card found that boosts for low socioeconomic status would likely increase the number of Hispanic and Asian American students admitted, he concluded that the boost would need to be “larger than that given to candidates with the most exceptional academic, extracurricular, personal, and athletic ratings” in order for the simulation’s proportion of Black students to be comparable to that of the actual College Class of 2019’s.

Separately, an internal Harvard committee consisting of Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, and then-Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith considered assigning weight in admissions to socioeconomic background but ultimately concluded in a 2018 report that race-conscious admissions were necessary to the College.

“For example, if Harvard afforded weight [to socioeconomic background] sufficient to produce a combined proportion of African American, hispanic, and Other students comparable to that of current classes, the proportion of admitted students with the highest academic ratings (as assigned by admissions officers) would be expected to drop from 76% to 66%,” the committee wrote in its report.

Following the decision, Kahlenberg wrote in a New York Times opinion piece that “focusing on class” is the “obvious solution” for schools to maintain their commitments to diversity in the wake of the decision.

“I testified that racial diversity is very important — but that providing a leg up to economically disadvantaged students is a fairer and more legally and politically sustainable way to produce it,” Kahlenberg wrote.

‘More Qualitative and Less Quantitative’

Prior to the Supreme Court’s decision, undergraduate admissions’ usage of standardized testing — like the ACT and SAT — had already been on a sharp decline.

The ACT and SAT have long been criticized for the impact that socioeconomic factors have on how students perform, with a number of research studies over the years showing that wealthy students tend to perform better on standardized tests than low-income students.

And at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, a majority of schools — including Harvard — stopped requiring applicants to submit a standardized test score with their application. Others — like the University of California system — took it a step further and decided not to consider standardized test scores in admissions at all.

“I had written that one time in the Chronicle — the Chronicle of Higher Ed — that Covid might be the death of the SAT. And I’m sort of wondering now whether this opinion might really be the death of the SAT,” said Boeckenstedt, the Oregon State University vice provost.

“I looked at diversity in the incoming classes of the Ivy League, Stanford, and MIT before and after test-optional admission, and all of them got substantially more diverse after they eliminated the requirement for the SAT,” he added. “So, my guess is one of the things many of these institutions will do is eliminate the SAT or keep test-optional policies.”

According to Boeckenstedt, eliminating standardized testing would make it easier to be “less objective.”

“Someone can’t come in and say I was more qualified than this person because SAT — that hard and fast number — is no longer part of it,” he added.

Card, the UC Berkeley Economics professor, said that he believes the further decline of standardized testing is just one way in which the college admissions process will “become more qualitative and less quantitative.”

“One problem that Harvard had in defending itself was it had incredible, detailed records for all kinds of characteristics of students and quantitative scores on different dimensions of the students,” Card said. “I suspect what a lot of schools are going to do is set up a process where the folder goes into a committee without race on it — race or ethnicity information attached to it — and then they have an admissions process which holistically considers the application but qualitatively, rather than with all these quantitative scores.”

“Because those are so easy for an outsider like Mr. Blum’s organization to subpoena and then start investigating,” he added, referring to Students for Fair Admissions’ president and co-founder Edward J. Blum.

Edward J. Blum, the co-founder and president of the anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions, speaks in front of the Supreme Court.
Edward J. Blum, the co-founder and president of the anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions, speaks in front of the Supreme Court. By Julian J. Giordano

Duke University Economics professor Peter S. Arcidiacono — who was an expert witness for SFFA — acknowledged that while he feels “really not great” about it, this decision could be the end of standardized testing.

“Standardized testing — I think — is an equalizer overall and there are ways to do standardized testing in a way that would be more fair,” he said.

Kahlenberg, the other SFFA expert witness, stressed that while “there’s a gap in SAT scores between those who are wealthier and those who are less well off,” this is also true for “lots of other criteria, such as essays and teacher recommendations and access to extracurricular activities.”

“That’s why I think it’s important not to get rid of the traditional indicators of merit but to consider those indicators like the SAT — like grades — in the context of the socioeconomic hurdles surmounted,” Kahlenberg said.

Arcidiacono said that he would like to see increased transparency around the importance of standardized testing, particularly after universities admitted people without standardized test scores during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“What I really want is for universities to be more transparent about what leads to success at their university,” Arcidiacono said. “Now, we’re at a key point — critical point — where universities can hunker down even more in the hiding of their data or can say, ‘Look, no, we want to actually use our data to show that we’re actually the place where students succeed.’”

Ending Legacy and Donor Preferences

But the reform that has received the most attention since the fall of race-conscious admissions is the elimination of what Harvard calls “ALDC” preferences: preferences for athletic recruits, legacy applicants, relatives of donors, and the children of faculty and staff members.

In his June 29 remarks following the decision, Biden said that he would be directing the Department of Education to look into “practices like legacy admissions and other systems that expand privilege instead of opportunity.”

And on Tuesday, the Department of Education announced an investigation into Harvard’s use of donor and legacy preferences in its admissions processes, just three weeks after a civil rights complaint alleging the practices amount to racial discrimination.

“In other words, Harvard admits predominantly white students using Donor and Legacy Preferences, and, as a direct result, excludes non-white applicants,” the complaint states.

Harvard declined to comment on the complaint when it was filed. After the Education Department announced its investigation, Harvard spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain wrote in a statement that Harvard is reviewing its admissions practices in accordance with the Supreme Court’s decision.

“As this work continues, and moving forward, Harvard remains dedicated to opening doors to opportunity and to redoubling our efforts to encourage students from many different backgrounds to apply for admission,” Swain said.

At Harvard, legacy and donor preferences are now under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education.
At Harvard, legacy and donor preferences are now under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education. By Julian J. Giordano

Legacy preferences came under renewed fire after Harvard-based research group Opportunity Insights released a study that concluded that wealthy students are considerably more likely to be admitted to highly selective institutions than middle-class students with similar test scores.

The study, which was authored by Harvard Economics professors Raj Chetty ’00 and David J. Deming and Brown Economics professor John N. Friedman ’02, mentioned eliminating legacy preferences and recruiting athletes of varied socioeconomic backgrounds as ways of socioeconomically diversifying their student bodies.

Some selective institutions — including Johns Hopkins University and MIT — did not have legacy preferences in their admissions processes prior to the affirmative action decision and since then, some institutions — such as Wesleyan University — have joined them by ending the practice.

Shortly after the decision, former Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers ’82 wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post opposing legacy preferences, adding in an interview with The Crimson that he had shared his views “about legacy admissions internally at Harvard.”

Summers added that he waited to publicly comment on legacy admissions until after the Supreme Court’s decision, as he felt “it was not appropriate” to discuss Harvard’s admissions policies “as a former president while there was litigation underway.”

Jack, the Boston University associate professor, agreed that Harvard should end its practice of legacy preferences and took it a step further, referring to legacy and donor preferences as “the most prejudicial preference in higher education.”

Jack posed a key question for universities that he hopes will guide the path they follow after the Supreme Court’s decision: “If affirmative action has been taken off the table by others, what will you take off the table to make room for others?”

Correction: July 31, 2023

A previous version of this article used the incorrect version of the model by Richard D. Kahlenberg ’85, the expert witness for SFFA. The article has been updated with the model he presented in court.

—Charlotte P. Ritz-Jack contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Neil H. Shah can be reached at neil.shah@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @neilhshah15.

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