Sat. Jul 13th, 2024


When the Supreme Court overturned race-conscious college admissions last June, Adrienne Oddi and other administrators at Queens University paused their Board of Trustees meeting to acknowledge that their world was entering a new era.

Though Queens did not factor race into admissions decisions like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Harvard University — the schools at the center of the ruling upending 40 years of precedent — officials at the Charlotte campus knew they would have to act: Even acknowledging a student’s race in admissions discussions could now pose a degree of legal peril.

That day, Oddi, vice president of strategic enrollment and communications at Queens, published an open letter on the university’s website, noting that admissions officials had lost an “essential tool in our tool kit by losing a defining piece of each student’s story — of each student’s identity.”

A year later, many of the nation’s most selective universities have snapped into compliance with the court’s vision of a colorblind America, reconsidering all the ways they use race as a factor. But that vision has reverberated far beyond academia: Programs meant to diversify companies, public boards and government contractors face a legal onslaught unleashed by the landmark ruling, pushing American society at large toward a new race-neutral era.

While the changes at colleges like Harvard have been dramatic, the principle of race-neutrality is being felt more subtly at universities like Queens that accept more applicants than they turn away. Oddi said the ruling brought more of an “emotional shift than a practical shift” to her office and described how she blinds herself to a student’s race if the student mentions it in an application essay. The Supreme Court wrote that students could discuss race so long as it’s relevant to an experience, such as a time they overcame racial discrimination.

Before the ruling, Oddi said she could “brighten” certain parts of an applicant’s identity while evaluating them “holistically” — including the applicant’s race and ethnicity. If a student wrote about being a biracial woman with a father from the Philippines, for example, an admissions official might note that the university does not see many Filipinos in the applicant pool and that “we would love to have more Filipinos in the community,” Oddi said, posing a hypothetical.

But today, she said, that conversation would not happen at Queens. In fact, Oddi said she feels barred from acting on the student’s racial information at all. Instead of brightening that aspect of a student’s identity, she feels forced to erase it. And that has instilled in her a sense of “sadness” — not necessarily for herself but rather for the students who may feel dissuaded from writing about their whole selves, including race and ethnicity.

“I want to live in a world where people can know and be known fully,” she said.

The true impact of the ruling may not be clear for some time. In the fall, universities will report the racial makeup of their freshman class. Some schools may do so this summer after students have been admitted and committed to attend. Early research suggests the ruling’s impact could be relatively minor: Only a fifth of all U.S. colleges put substantial weight on race in admissions decisions, according to a November 2023 Brookings Institution study.

A study by the Common App, a nonprofit whose application is used by more than 1,000 member colleges, found no major changes in the racial and ethnic composition of its applicant pool in the 2023-2024 admissions season. Nor did it see significant deviations from previous trends in how students self-identify their race and ethnicity on the form, or how students write about race and ethnicity in their essays.

Zachary Bleemer, an assistant professor of economics at Princeton University, said states that have banned affirmative action at public universities may offer the best preview of the ruling’s potential implications. California, Texas and Michigan — which all have highly selective public universities — saw immediate and significant declines in Black and Hispanic enrollment at their flagship institutions after state officials prohibited them from considering race in admissions.

After California voters banned affirmative action at state universities in 1996, the University of California system saw a 12 percent drop in underrepresented groups, while campuses in Berkeley and Los Angeles both reported more than 40 percent declines, according to Bleemer’s research. Over time, those numbers have climbed at the most selective UC campuses, which have used multiple strategies to bolster diversity, in part also because of growth in the state’s Hispanic population. But the race-neutral alternatives increased enrollment of underrepresented minorities far less than affirmative action.

It’s harder to predict what might happen at highly competitive private universities, Bleemer said. They may be guided by the experiences of the public schools, which have deployed a variety of strategies to try to maintain diversity. Some worked well, such as holistic review — in which admissions officers factor in many elements of a student’s academic and extracurricular performance as well as personal characteristics — but some have not been particularly successful.

Still, some experts contend schools can maintain diversity without affirmative action through strategies such as increasing financial aid for students from low-income families, investing in pipeline programs, intensifying recruitment and efforts like fly-ins that bring prospective students to campus. But those initiatives are more expensive.

Administrators say assessing the ruling’s impact is also complicated by another crisis in higher education: widespread delays in students receiving financial aid offers. Disastrous technical glitches related to the new federal student aid (FAFSA) form could affect where, and whether, students attend college, especially students from low-income families.

“What I’m nervous about is misinterpretations … because so many things have impacted this year’s data,” said Kedra Ishop, vice president of enrollment management at the University of Southern California. “It’s going to be really hard to extrapolate what this year looks like.”

The delays are weighing on efforts to maintain campus diversity — more perhaps than the Supreme Court ruling, some admissions officials said.

“Our approach this entire year has been to alleviate as much stress and pressure on students and families because we had these two really big changes happen within a couple of months from one another,” Oddi said, noting that the two variables will probably work together to change the racial and ethnic demographics on campus.

Legal experts said the Supreme Court ruling is likely to pose long-term questions for universities having to transition to race-neutral admissions.

After the Supreme Court overturned affirmative action in college admissions last June, these two students reconsidered their college applications approach. (Video: Reshma Kirpalani/The Washington Post, Photo: Reshma Kirpalani/The Washington Post)

“It’s hard to overstate the sea-change effect that occurred and is, frankly, still occurring, because now there’s a second- and third-generation set of questions emerging,” said Art Coleman, managing partner and co-founder of Education Counsel, which is guiding universities as they seek to comply with the Supreme Court decision.

“What does this mean for financial aid and scholarships? What does this mean for nonprofit organizations that are partners with institutions that may have a racial focus? What does this mean for issues of sex and gender beyond the question of race and national origin?” Coleman said. “All of the questions the court did not specifically address — there are ripple effects and implications here.”

The University of Connecticut chose to keep applicants’ self-reported racial data sealed to avoid any possible appearance of influence, said Vern Granger, director of undergraduate admissions. Although the college for years has used a system of review that uses the “full picture” of a student to make decisions, this year the checkboxes indicating race were not visible to application readers. But those readers were able to consider applicants’ life experiences, including how race impacted them, he said, as described in essays and letters of recommendation.

“We had our general counsel’s office come and do a couple of sessions with our readers, just reiterating holistic review and their professional judgment,” Granger said.

Oddi, the Queens administrator, said her office made similar operational changes, redacting race reporting on applications and instructing readers not to consider racial information if it’s apparent in an essay or a list of extracurricular activities.

But Oddi said Queens has long been able to achieve campus diversity without explicit racial considerations. The university dispatches recruiters to every high school in Charlotte and tries to visit a variety of public high schools outside the city, delivering an “inclusive” message that encourages applicants to apply no matter their backgrounds. In last year’s incoming class, about half of students identified as White, she said, while Black and Hispanic people each made up about 14 percent. Another 5.5 percent identified as multiracial and 2 percent as Asian.

Oddi said that the optimist in her sees the Supreme Court ruling as an opportunity to test new strategies that can help schools reach new students. But as an administrator who has read tens of thousands of student applications over her career, she also feels a sense of loss.

“For some students who are ready, willing, interested in engaging in topics around race and ethnicity and how important their individual, racial and ethnic identity is to them, we can receive that information — but we can’t advocate,” Oddi said.

That means she can’t always see students in the ways they want to be seen.




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