To the Supreme Court decision breaking down racial and ethnic preferences in college admissions, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. had harsh words for Harvard and the University of North Carolina, calling their admissions process « elusive, » « opaque, » and » imponderable ».
But the court ruling against the two universities on Thursday could lead to an even more subjective and mysterious admissions system, as colleges try to follow the law but also admit a diverse class of students.
Some university officials predicted that there would be less emphasis on standardized metrics like test scores and class rank, and more emphasis on personal qualities, told through recommendations and the question essay — the opposite of what many opponents of affirmative action had hoped.
“Will it get duller? Yes, it will have to,” said Danielle Ren Holley, who is about to take over as president of Mount Holyoke College. « It’s a complex process and this opinion will make it even more complex. »
In an interview, Edward Blum, the founder and president of Students for Fair Admissions, the plaintiff defended what he called « standard measurements » of academic qualifications, citing studies that showed test scores, grades, and coursework helped determine which students would thrive in competitive schools.
He vowed to enforce the decision, saying Students for Fair Admissions and its board « have been closely monitoring potential changes in admissions procedures. »
« We remain vigilant and intend to initiate litigation should universities defiantly challenge this clear ruling, » he wrote in a statement Thursday.
It would be nearly impossible, however, to eliminate any mention or suggestion of race in the admissions process, starting with the applicants’ names. And in the decision, Justice Roberts specifically held the door open for considering racial or ethnic origin in someone’s lived experience.
« Nothing in this opinion should be interpreted as prohibiting universities from considering discussing an applicant’s how race has affected his or her life, whether through discrimination, inspiration or otherwise, » he wrote.
However, he cautioned that the personal essay could play no hidden role in the telegraph race. « In other words, the student must be treated based on his experiences of him as an individual, not based on race, » she wrote. « Many universities have been doing just the opposite for too long. »
Universities, including Harvard and UNC, said Thursday they would comply with the ruling. But for outside skeptics, untangling a university’s intentions will be a challenge. How can they know if an admissions decision was based on an essay on the candidate’s personal grit or race that revealed?
« I think a very plausible outcome of this will be that schools will cheat and say, ‘Let’s see who gets sued,' » said Richard Sander, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has been critical in against the action statement. « The chances of a single school being sued are low and the cost of the lawsuit is really high. »
Some education officials have already discussed how to harness the essay. In a recent presentation Sponsored by the American Council on Education, Shannon Gundy, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Maryland, said students should tailor their admissions essays to describe how race has affected their lives.
“Right now, students write about their soccer practice, they write about their grandmother’s death,” he said, adding, “They don’t write about their trials and tribulations. They don’t write about the challenges they faced. »
Colleges could also ask for other, more focused essays, along the lines of the “diversity, equity, and inclusion” claims that have become a familiar part of hiring faculty.
Ms. Holley, the incoming president of Mount Holyoke, imagined a question that would say something like, “One of Mount Holyoke College’s core values is diversity of all kinds. Please tell us why you like it and what you think it brings to the Mount Holyoke community in terms of diversity.”
College officials expect the decision will lead to an immediate drop in the number of Black and Hispanic students at selective colleges, echoing experiences in California and Michigan after those states adopted bans on affirmative action at their public universities years ago. . Black students at the University of California, Berkeley made up just 3.4 percent of the class of incoming freshmen last fall, a quarter-century after the ban went into effect.
But many of the 100 or so schools that practice affirmative action have been planning for this moment for months, if not years. And they’ve already moved into an era of « race-neutral » admissions, an era that seeks to follow the letter of the law while finding ways to maintain the ethos of affirmative action.
Academic rigor still matters, but what about standardized tests? Not necessary and, in some cases, not even read.
Schools are increasingly giving preference to high-achieving students from low-income families or to « first generation » applicants, the first in their families to go to college. They are pouring money to support students and offer more need-based financial aid.
Some selective colleges will also most likely play a much more direct role in nurturing potential applicants.
The University of Virginia, for example, announced a plan this month to target 40 high schools in eight regions of the state that had little history of sending applicants. Duke University just promised full scholarships to North and South Carolina students with family incomes of $150,000 or less.
« The hardest part is really identifying and recruiting students, » said Alison Byerly, president of Carleton College, which she said will expand its partnerships with community organizations.
Students are out there, said L. Song Richardson, president of Colorado College. « If we believe that talent is evenly distributed » across demographic groups, he said, « then you would expect an unbiased recruiting process to result in a diverse class. »
Some educators believe California’s experience after the 1996 ban on affirmative action shows that such programs can work. The UC system as a whole admitted its most diverse class ever in 2021. But recruiting was expensive; the price tag was hundreds of millions of dollars, and the top campus, Berkeley, is still struggling to recover.
The risks are different for some public universities, such as the University of North Carolina or the University of Virginia, which have already had run-ins with conservative politicians over « diversity, equity, and inclusion » policies. They will most likely proceed with caution when it comes to dark and race-neutral policies.
« One of the real movements you see from public universities is to be as apolitical as possible, in red states and blue states, » said Gordon Gee, president of West Virginia University. “It’s kind of a Bud Light moment,” he said, referring to the beer company’s unfortunate hiring of a transgender spokeswoman that led to a boycott.
There may also be pressure to blow up the whole process, eliminating preferences for the children of alumni and donors, who tend to be white and affluent.
So far, most schools have resisted these pleas, saying these preferences build communities and help with fundraising. But with cynicism surrounding college admissions and many believing the system is rigged for the affluent and well-connected, the court’s decision could force a showdown.
« This is a huge setback for racial justice, but it’s also an opportunity, » said Jerome Karabel, a UC Berkeley sociologist who has studied college admissions. “Now is the time to go back to the drawing boards and see what we can do. There are a million ideas out there.
Stephanie Saul contributed report.