Looking beyond Fisher v. University of Texas
With the Supreme Court's ruling in favor of UT-Austin, colleges have a path forward in admissions
As Reuters reports, plaintiff Abigail Fisher had argued that she was rejected in favor of "lesser-qualified" candidates of color in violation of her constitutional right to equal protection under the law. In his opinion, however, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that "it remains an enduring challenge to our nation's education system to reconcile the pursuit of diversity with the constitutional promise of equal treatment and dignity," adding that UT-Austin's attempts to boost racial diversity in race-neutral ways had been unsuccessful.
Race-based affirmative action programs are not the only admissions policies that have an impact on the racial composition of student bodies. Legacy admissions benefit more white families because, going just a few generations back, many colleges only accepted white students. Preferences for athletes, too, benefit more white students than any other race. And in both cases, these white students are disproportionately from higher income families.
Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, cites foundation research that found colleges were able to get similar results as affirmative action by using non-race-based measures, including getting rid of legacy preferences, paying attention to class, and beefing up transfer pipelines. But there’s a catch.
“There is a way to get racial diversity without affirmative action,” Kahlenberg said at a recent education conference. “It just costs more money.”
Before the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Fisher v. University of Texas, Kahlenberg thought a conservative outcome might actually lead to liberal progress because universities would have incentives to use other ways of creating diverse classes. Under these circumstances, low-income students may get an advocate in more admissions offices.
“Universities, to their credit, want racial diversity so they’re going to find other ways to get it that end up helping economically disadvantaged students along the way,” Kahlenberg said.
But Liliana Garces, an assistant professor in the higher education program and a research associate in the Center for the Study of Higher Education at The Pennsylvania State University, says this sets up a false dichotomy. It’s not about race or class, she says. Many institutions consider both among a broad range of factors that impact admissions decisions. And Garces said only by doing so can institutions achieve rich diversity that expands educational benefits for all students.
In her own research, Garces finds dramatic declines in the proportionate number of underrepresented students of color on college campuses following bans on the use of race in admissions. This is true at selective undergraduate institutions and across all fields of graduate study.
And the impact of bans extends beyond the admissions office. Once students get on campus, many colleges consider it their next responsibility to create an inclusive environment that makes them feel welcome there. At the University of Michigan, Garces found administrators who were charged with creating that inclusive environment felt like they couldn’t talk about race or racism after the ban on affirmative action. They felt like they had to make their efforts less visible, and they felt less empowered to advocate for diversity and inclusion.
“These are really where the next set of challenges are going to be for institutions, even as they seek to consider race-neutral options,” Garces said.
Even before students get to campus, the push for diversity is about more than admissions. Schools that are bringing together the most diverse classes start with outreach and targeted recruitment. They have more sophisticated financial aid models that help bring the best students to campus. Arthur Coleman, managing partner and co-founder of EducationCounsel, says vice presidents of enrollment management now need to connect the dots between these three areas in service to diversity goals.
He believes there is authentic interest among the higher education community to tap the big picture of diversity on campus. Institutional missions are not changing because of the Supreme Court. But colleges and universities may have to work harder — and pay more — to achieve their goals.
Follow Tara García Mathewson on Twitter