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Post-SCOTUS Admissions Ruling: Where Do Reporters Go Next?

College admissions officers aren’t all filling a quota and admitting students based on race, experts say. They explain why this assumption is wrong, combat misinformation and provide tips on covering underrepresented students following the ban on race-conscious admissions.

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Many states have rushed to clamp down on considerations for underrepresented students in higher education, ordered colleges and universities to eliminate funding for diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and look to pursue more actions. This comes in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings, in cases brought by Students for Fair Admissions, banning race-conscious admissions for colleges and universities.

These sentiments were shared during a panel discussion for the Education Writers Association’s 2023 Higher Education Seminar: Great Expectations. The event was held at University of California, Riverside last month. Panelists shared tips on trends reporters should pay attention to, gave personal insight, and forecasted challenges ahead.

POLITICO Education Reporter Bianca Quilantan moderated the discussion, which also included Youlonda Copeland-Morgan, a consultant and former associate vice chancellor for enrollment management at UCLA; Mariam Lam, vice chancellor and chief diversity officer at UCR; Robert Teranishi, a professor of social science and comparative education at UCLA; and Zakiya Smith Ellis, principal at EducationCounsel.

“It’s not just a matter of how this decision affects the practices of an institution itself, but it impacts society,” said Teranishi, who reflected on what Proposition 209 did when it passed in California in 1996.

Teranishi said not only did Prop 209 negatively affect enrollment at selective schools, but also, it decreased the number of applicants.

“What I found was a chilling effect on their perceptions of opportunity when it comes to the UC system,” he said.

Panelists said past research illustrates the problems with admissions. 

“The biggest challenge to access is honesty,” said Copeland-Morgan, who worked in higher education admissions for 44 years. She said that universities need to be honest about how and why decisions are made when it comes to admissions.

“A lot of focus is on the highly selective schools, the Ivy League, but there are a lot of institutions that are doing great work that are unknown to the general public, and they have to consider things other than credentials,” Copleland-Morgan said.

Those other things being location, test scores and rankings. Not knowing these things is a barrier to underserved populations, Copeland-Morgan said. 

Teranishi added that attention needs to be paid to HBCUs, where parents might feel more comfortable sending their children.

Attacks on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Lam said that a direct result of the SCOTUS decision was a rush by states to create prohibitive Diversity, Equity and Inclusion legislation, including in Florida, Texas and Arkansas. Program funding for equity and diversity initiatives was cut, which also affects scholarships. This has forced college presidents and chancellors to rename DEI offices and fix program language to fit within the law.

“There’s a kind of panic to go into compliance, and I think all of our states that are less affected, we’re also reviewing all of our processes and policies to make sure that we’re aligning,” Lam said. She said that in places like California, all institutions still have affirmative actions offices to protect against discrimination, and that people have conflated DEI and these protections, which she said is important for people to know the difference. 

“This is to remember, to pivot back to that reminder that you know the DEI initiatives are not aggregating racist admissions. The assumption is that all of our institutions are operating based on stereotypes, which is not the case because we’re beholden to normal legal policy,” Lam added.

Lam said that she hopes the conversation transitions to the harms of cutting DEI funding, which can affect voting constituents like veterans, people of color and the LGBTQ community. Lawmakers need to know their policies restrict them from getting grant money that have included DEI in their requirements, she said.

After the SCOTUS Decision

Copeland-Morgan said that one thing she wanted to make clear was that colleges and universities don’t make race-based admissions, which shocked her that Harvard had a policy to do just that. 

“I think one of the unfortunate things that have happened as a result of the Supreme Court’s decision is the general public believes that college admissions offices across the country are admitting students based on race.” Admissions officers don’t sit around selecting a quota of Black, Latino or Asian students, she said. Race, socioeconomic status, and other information is used to add context for reading applications, she said.

All panelists agreed with the U.S. Department of Education’s guidelines released in August that call for more community outreach from schools to aid recruitment. They should partner with community groups and go to areas where potential underrepresented students are. This is one thing that California schools have done and continue to do.

Smith Ellis, who said that she thought the court’s decision was ridiculous and heartbreaking to her, said that she expects many more court cases to come against schools for admissions policies. One such case is legacy admissions: the Department of Education announced it was  investigating Harvard’s legacy policies after three Boston-area advocacy groups filed a complaint in July.

Reporting on Underrepresented Students in Higher Education 

Speakers gave journalists story ideas to look into:

  • Explore the career paths of first generation, rural and socioeconomically challenged students’ career trajectory after college to show the public what their money was used for.
  • Examine why SCOTUS allowed race-conscious admissions in the military but not in college. 
  • Focus on the role that higher education plays in upward social and economic mobility.