Do Race-Neutral Admissions Policies Work?

Recent history suggests banning affirmative action will significantly reduce the number of racial minorities on campus. Can universities find more creative ways to consider race in admissions decisions?
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  • If the Supreme Court bans affirmative action, universities will adopt more race-neutral admissions practices.
  • Public universities in states that have banned racial preferences have experimented with race-neutral tactics.
  • Recruitment based on income has not achieved the expected student diversity goals.
  • Even without an explicit checkbox, race will continue to factor into admissions decisions.

Following the recent U.S. Supreme Court oral arguments on affirmative action, many experts predict the days of considering race in college admissions may be numbered.

If that comes to pass, how will universities achieve their long-standing goal of educating a diverse student body in a post-affirmative action world? Some public universities have already experimented with race-neutral recruitment efforts because of state laws banning racial preferences. Have these measures proven successful?

As colleges nationwide await a Supreme Court decision, they face an uncertain future about how to craft a class and ensure diversity within their student body.

Supreme Court Cases Promote Race-Neutral Admissions

On Oct. 31, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for two related affirmative action cases brought by Students for Fair Admissions against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-Chapel Hill).

The Harvard case alleges the university has discriminated against Asian Americans in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The one involving UNC-Chapel Hill features similar claims but adds white students into the mix.

During oral arguments, several justices posed questions related to race-neutral admissions, or alternatives to race-conscious enrollment practices.

[E]verybody would rather achieve all our racial diversity goals through race-neutral means, Associate Justice Elena Kagan said in the Harvard case. And that's certainly what our cases say you have to do.

She was referring to recent Supreme Court decisions on affirmative action. In the 2003 case Grutter v. Bollinger, the court held in favor of the University of Michigan's affirmative action policy but noted the university could employ race-conscious admissions to promote student diversity only after exhausting race-neutral alternatives.

More recently, in 2016's Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing the majority opinion, upheld the use of racial preferences but stressed the university bears the burden of demonstrating that 'available' and 'workable' 'race-neutral alternatives' do not suffice.

Many Public Universities Already Practice Race-Neutral Admissions

Several public universities already employ race-neutral admissions practices. At least nine states — Arizona, California, Florida, Idaho, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Washington — have passed laws prohibiting affirmative action in university admissions.

California provides a fascinating case study because of its diverse population and the breadth and quality of its public higher education system. Voters in California passed Proposition 209 in 1996, banning race-conscious admissions policies. The law was passed once again in 2020.

In an amicus brief submitted to the court ahead of oral arguments, the University of California system recounted the effects of its race-neutral admissions strategies on campus diversity.

Immediately following the affirmative action ban, it notes, the number of first-year students from underrepresented minority groups dropped precipitously across the system, plummeting by more than 50% at its most selective campuses, including Berkeley and Los Angeles (UCLA).

In response, the system ramped up its efforts to attract underrepresented students. Measures included outreach programs for low-income and first-generation students, targeted recruitment in certain communities, and summer immersion programs to prepare students for the college environment.

Did it work? Not initially. At UCLA, Black enrollment, which had been 7% before Proposition 209, fell to 3.4% by 1998. In 2006, UCLA's entering class of almost 5,000 included only 96 Black students, known on campus as the Infamous 96.

Efforts have paid some dividends over time, and numbers have rebounded. By 2019, UCLA's Black enrollment had grown to almost 6%.

Yet the university system struggles to enroll a student body that is sufficiently racially diverse to attain the educational benefits of diversity, it claims in its brief. And at its most selective campuses, the shortfall is especially apparent, causing African American, Native American, and Latino/a students to struggle with feelings of racial isolation.

UC's decades-long experience with race-neutral approaches demonstrates that highly competitive universities may not be able to achieve the benefits of student body diversity through race-neutral measures alone, the brief concludes.

Quotation mark

The University of Michigan (U-M) shared a similar story in an amicus brief submitted to the court. After Michigan voters passed Proposal 2 in 2006, the university discontinued even the limited consideration of race in holistic admissions programs that Grutter approved.

In the ensuing years, despite extraordinary efforts that included many of the targeted outreach tactics employed in California as well as a reduction in the number of students enrolled via early acceptance programs, minority enrollment fell sharply, the university claims. It has since experienced a marked and sustained drop among the most-underrepresented groups: Black and Native American enrollments have fallen by 44% and 90%, respectively.

Black undergraduate enrollment fell from 7.03% in 2006, when Proposal 2 was passed, to 3.92% in 2021. During that span, the percentage of college-aged Black students in Michigan increased from 16% to 19%.

While I'm thankful for the incredible resources and the education, Rita Brooks, one of 74 Black students among 2,421 undergraduates at Michigan's school of business, told The New York Times, it's difficult to ignore the isolation felt in classroom settings where you're one of two Black students at the most.

Like the University of California, Michigan told the court that after many years of trying to achieve racial diversity, it has proven that goal cannot be adequately realized at selective institutions without taking race into account as one factor among many in admissions decisions.

What's more, both the University of California and Michigan have considerable financial resources for such recruitment programs, and they suggest it would be that much more difficult for other state universities to replicate their efforts. The University of California has spent billions of dollars pursuing race-neutral alternatives.

Many schools lack the resources that U-M has been able to put into this effort, Michigan's brief states, and would not be able to undertake such a broad array of initiatives to respond to such a disruptive change.

Do Income-Based Strategies Yield a Diverse Class?

Critics of race-conscious admissions claim similar diversity outcomes could be met by substituting class for race. Why not implement affirmative action measures for the poor?

Richard Kahlenberg, formerly of The Century Foundation and an expert witness in the Harvard case, posits this argument. Writing in The Economist, Kahlenberg suggests giving a leg up to economically disadvantaged students of all races, a disproportionate share of whom are people of colour.

Kahlenberg claims this tactic is fairer and more appealing. He cites a 2016 Gallup poll in which 63% of Americans opposed colleges using race in admissions decisions while 61% of them favored the consideration of economic circumstances.

But does it work? Not exactly.

Both California's and Michigan's experiences bear this out. Their briefs claim that while outreach efforts have resulted in more low-income and first-generation students, they have not alone significantly increased diversity.

In Michigan's case, there are almost six times as many white students as Black students from low-income families.

Quotation mark

A 2017 report titled Alternative Paths to Diversity: Exploring and Implementing Effective College Admissions Policies endeavors to answer this essential question: Is there a workable, nonracial way to achieve diversity without any consideration of a student's race in the admissions process?

Among the initiatives examined is the Texas Top Ten Percent Plan (TTPP), instituted in 1997 after a federal appellate court ruled in Hopwood v. Texas that the state's affirmative action system was unconstitutional.

The plan guarantees students in the top 10% of their high school class automatic admission to any public university in the state. In 2009, Texas amended the policy, raising the threshold to 6-7% for the University of Texas at Austin.

Because many of those students come from under-resourced communities, the TTPP serves as a way to increase both low-income and racial minority students, at least in theory.

However, as the Alternative Paths report points out, theory doesn't always translate into practice.

It claims numerous studies have demonstrated that replacing a holistic admissions policy with a top 10% plan … would not successfully restore the number of students of color at the most selective four-year campuses that would be achieved under a policy that considers race.

One reason is cost. Many students in low-income communities simply cannot afford to attend a four-year university. As a result, those who are admitted are less likely to enroll.

Moreover, those students, even though they represent the top tier of their high school class, aren't always adequately prepared for college.

The race-poverty correlation is far from perfect … the report notes, and the schools that do have double segregation by race and class tend to be the very schools that are the least effective in preparing students for college for many reasons.

So is there a viable race-neutral substitute for affirmative action that sufficiently satisfies diversity goals? No, says the report.

The basic conclusion of this research, it claims, is that there is no demonstrated feasible alternative that would produce the levels of diversity that selective universities find necessary for their educational missions without some consideration of race.

Similar studies conducted by Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce issued the same verdict.

Certainly, selective colleges should strive for class diversity along with racial diversity, wrote Anthony Carnevale, the center's director. But class disadvantage and racial disadvantage are distinct problems — with different roots and different impacts — and they require distinctive solutions.

Interpreting Proxies for Race

In a post-affirmative action world, where the consideration of race as a factor in admissions decisions is no longer legal, can and will universities still favor applicants of color? Can these decisions ever be truly race-neutral?

Consider, for example, a student's personal statement reflecting on the challenges of belonging to a particular race. Perhaps that student took part in extracurricular activities signaling membership in a minority community. The University of California evaluates students based on numerous factors, according to a statement shared with BestColleges, including an appreciation of their individual context and lived experiences.

And even without an explicit application checkbox for race, certain assumptions can be made based on surnames, ZIP codes, and individual high schools, notes admissions consultant Sara Harberson.

It's a form of racial profiling in college admissions that no one speaks about, Harberson wrote on her website. And that won't end. In fact, that will increase as a result of affirmative action being eliminated.