Colleges should step up diversity efforts after affirmative action ruling, the government says
The Biden administration is asking America's colleges to renew their efforts to make campuses more racially diverse, urging schools to boost scholarships and minority recruiting and to place “meaningful emphasis” on the adversity students face because of their race or finances.
The Education Department issued a report Thursday promoting strategies to increase diversity in the wake of a Supreme Court decision barring colleges from considering the race of applicants in the admission process. It fulfills a request from President Joe Biden to help colleges advance diversity without running afoul of the court's decision.
In announcing the report, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona called on state and local education leaders to “break down barriers for underserved students and reimagine pathways into higher education.”
“Our future is brighter when we prepare students of all backgrounds to lead our multiracial democracy together,” Cardona said in a statement.
The guidance amounts to a suggestion with no binding authority. The federal government has little power to make demands of colleges and universities without an act of Congress or new federal rules.
It was issued the same day a House Education and the Workforce subcommittee discussed the future of college admissions after affirmative action. Republicans warned that they will be watching for colleges that defy the court’s decision.
“To those at institutions who think the Supreme Court ruling is a ‘pretty please’ ask, this committee will keep a close eye as the 2024 application process unfolds,” said Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah. “ Racism, hidden or overt, will not be tolerated by this oversight body.”
Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., countered that affirmative action helped level the playing field in admissions, balancing policies that favor the wealthy, including legacy admissions, in which children of alumni and donors are favored in admissions.
“Without policies to counterbalance the discriminatory factors,” he said, “the outcome of the system will remain discriminatory.”
Much of the new guidance echoes an August letter issued by the departments of Education and Justice clarifying that colleges can still legally work to admit diverse student bodies.
The report encourages colleges to do more to recruit students of color. It suggests targeted outreach in areas with high concentrations of students of color and low-income families, and it pushes colleges to admit more transfer students from community college, which admit higher numbers of Black and Latino students.
It also calls for more financial aid based on a student's need and says states and colleges need to make application forms simpler and more transparent.
Notably, the administration said it “strongly encourages” colleges to consider any adversity, including racial discrimination, that a student has overcome, reinforcing an idea embraced by some colleges but criticized by opponents as a loophole to consider race indirectly.
Biden previously pitched adversity as a “new standard” in admissions after the court’s decision, and some colleges have added application essays about adversity or overcoming challenges, opening the door for students to voluntarily discuss their racial background.
The report notes that although there's no commonly accepted way to measure adversity, admissions offices can consider an applicant's neighborhood or high school to put their achievements into context. Colleges can also examine whether a student endured discrimination, something that can be conveyed through essays, interviews and letters of recommendation, the department said.
“An applicant’s personal experiences with hardship or discrimination, including racial discrimination, and their ability to overcome those experiences may speak to their perseverance and resilience,” the guidance said.
The Supreme Court appeared to leave room for that kind of maneuver. The decision said that while schools cannot directly consider an applicant's race, nothing stops colleges from considering “an applicant’s discussion of how race affected the applicant’s life" — as long as the discussion is tied to the student's "quality of character or unique ability.”
The Education Department is also pushing colleges to rethink legacy admissions and other practices that may hinder racial or socioeconomic diversity. It pointed to a growing body of evidence that legacy admissions “may further advantage privileged communities in a manner that is at odds with expanding educational opportunity.”
The report held up Johns Hopkins University as a success story. After it abandoned legacy admission in 2014, the school saw its share of Black, Latino, and Native American students increase from 18% to 34%, and its share of low-income students also increased.
Biden and Cardona have repeatedly urged schools to end legacy admissions as a matter of fairness. Cardona recently told The Associated Press he would consider using “whatever levers” he can to discourage legacy admissions, although it's unclear what action he will take.
The report encourages colleges to rethink their reliance on standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT, and admissions preferences for applicants who apply early and commit to attending. Both practices have been criticized for favoring wealthier applicants who have access to test prep and may be less reliant on financial aid.
Colleges are being encouraged to take up the recommendations in hopes of avoiding a sharp decrease in the enrollment of students of color. Some states that previously ended affirmative action saw steep drops in the enrollment of Black and Latino students, including in California and Michigan.