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What the Supreme Court Decision on Affirmative Action Could Mean for College Admissions

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The issue of race and diversity in college admissions once again is front and center, as the U.S. Supreme Court will rule soon on the high-profile affirmative action case, Fisher v. University of Texas.

Panelists during a discussion at the Education Writers Association’s national conference in May offered mixed predictions about how the court will rule on whether the use of race in admissions is constitutional and how far the effects of the ruling could reach.

“I have a closet full of broken crystal balls,” said Art Coleman, managing partner and co-founder of EducationCounsel and principal author of the briefs filed by the College Board and other education organizations in the Fisher case.

Making the forecast more interesting: It will be a court of seven justices deciding the case, given the empty seat from Justice Antonin Scalia’s death and Justice Elena Kagan’s recusal. (She was solicitor general when the U.S. Department of Justice filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Fisher case when it was before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.)

Coleman said that he expects a 4-3 decision, in which Justice Anthony Kennedy authors a narrow opinion striking down UT’s race-conscious policy. But Coleman believes that the decision will be limited and not far-reaching, and instead will preserve much of the architecture and infrastructure that have guided universities’ diversity policies in recent years.

Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow with The Century Foundation, also predicted a 4-3 decision against UT’s use of race in admissions, with Kennedy again as the deciding vote. Kahlenberg expects a “conservative” decision that will lead to “liberal public policy” with this message: Diversity is good and is a compelling state interest, but universities will need to find a way to get there that doesn’t use race. To that end, Kahlenberg foresees increased use of race-neutral alternatives such as class-based admissions criteria that, for example, consider students’ zip codes and their parents’ incomes and education experience.

Liliana Garces, assistant professor of higher education at Pennsylvania State University and counsel of record in a brief filed in the Fisher case by 823 social scientists, had a different take. She envisions the court coming to some compromise, such as sending the case back to the lower court and asking them to remand it back to the trial court. “We might see another compromise from the justices,” Garces said.

Colleges bracing for a decision against affirmative action should prepare alternative ways to enroll a diverse student body, according to the panelists, though it is not clear how many colleges are readying for that possibility.

The panel’s moderator Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed, made his own prediction: that  if college admission practices are changed to rely solely on numerical measures, such as test scores, to pick students, the results could be very dramatic. For example, Asian Americans are the only ethnic group among college-bound 12th-graders who saw their average combined SAT score go up since 2006. It’s increased 54 points to 1654. No other group has improved their average score in that time, and, in fact, the average combined SAT score for 12th-grade college-bound black students has declined by 14 points since 2006 to 1277 in 2015. (Many experts caution that as public policy initiatives encourage more students to take the SAT or its rival the ACT, scores can sag overall. Between 2006 and 2015, the number of college-bound black students who took the SAT increased by 47 percent, from 150,000 to 219,000, while the total number of test-takers grew by 16 percent.)

Kahlenberg strongly endorsed class-based admissions standards. Those practices would  include dropping legacy admission spots, which favor white students; beefing up transfer programs with community colleges, which enroll many black and Hispanic students; as well as increasing financial aid for economically disadvantaged students. He said that in some states where voters have banned race in college admissions, a shift to class criteria has improved diversity at some institutions.

Garces countered that class-based versus race-conscious admissions debate is a “false choice,” adding it should be a “both-and” proposition, not an “either-or” situation.

She worries about the consequences of eliminating race-conscious criteria because in her view this practice would not only cut back the proportion of students of color on campuses, but also make campuses less inclusive, supportive environments and discourage students from advocating for race issues.

Coleman said that it’s a myth that race is the thumb on the scale tipping a student’s acceptance into an institution. He said that the use of race should be part of a nuanced, holistic approach that considers a student’s entire background and experience.

“It’s about assessing each individual student on a constellation of factors,” Coleman said, noting that that could include dozens of factors.

Coleman continued that the quest for diversity in higher education is not just about admissions.

“This is about outreach, targeted recruitment, sophisticated financial aid structures,” he said. He urged colleges to connect the dots between recruitment and admissions while Garces said that colleges need to make sure students are supported and graduate.

Story ideas from the session include:

  • Examine how local colleges seek out full-paying students, which can include legacy students;
  • Look at how many students at local elite institutions come from elite boarding schools;
  • Look at trends in Asian-American enrollment with affirmative action and without affirmative action.