Biden Admin Outlines How Colleges Can Consider Race in Admissions After Supreme Court Ruling

Colleges can still provide opportunities for students to discuss their race in the admissions process, the Departments of Education and Justice wrote in new guidance.
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Published on August 16, 2023
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  • Colleges can still use student experiences to consider race in admissions, the Departments of Justice and Education wrote in new guidance.
  • The guidance comes after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against affirmative action in college admissions in June.
  • Essays and recommendation letters about a student's lived experience related to race can still be used in the admissions process, officials wrote in the new guidance.
  • Colleges can also continue targeted outreach and recruitment efforts, so long as they don't give students preference in the admissions process.

Essays and personal recommendations are key as colleges can still consider race as a factor in admissions following the U.S. Supreme Court's June ruling against affirmative action in college admissions, the Biden administration said in newly released guidance.

The Supreme Court's ban on affirmative action in college admissions came as a blow to campus diversity efforts, BestColleges previously reported, and will likely lead to a drop in enrollment among Black and Hispanic and Latino/a students based on states that have already banned affirmative action, like California.

The conservative Supreme Court majority noted that nothing in their opinion "should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant's discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise," the Departments of Education and Justice noted in guidance for colleges and universities Monday.

That means universities can use a "holistic application-review process" to allow students to talk about their experiences, including those related to their race, racial discrimination, and other factors, according to the guidance.

"For example, a university could consider an applicant's explanation about what it means to him to be the first Black violinist in his city's youth orchestra or an applicant's account of overcoming prejudice when she transferred to a rural high school where she was the only student of South Asian descent," the guidance reads.

Students' lived experiences in the form of personal essays or recommendation letters means that colleges "remain free to consider any quality or characteristic of a student that bears on the institution's admission decision, such as courage, motivation, or determination, even if the student's application ties that characteristic to their lived experience with race — provided that any benefit is tied to 'that student's' characteristics, and that the student is 'treated based on his or her experiences as an individual[,]' and 'not on the basis of race,'" the guidance reads.

Colleges can also continue to implement "targeted outreach, recruitment, and pipeline or pathway programs" to ensure they have a diverse student body, according to the Biden administration guidance.

It noted that the Supreme Court's decision doesn't bar colleges from considering race when identifying prospective students for outreach and recruitment — as long as those programs don't provide those groups of prospective students with preference in admissions.

Community colleges are one avenue for colleges to bolster diversity in their student bodies, the guidance notes. A college could, for example, admit all students who complete degree programs at community colleges, which serve a large number of students of color, first-generation students, adult learners, and other historically underserved students.

And, as colleges look to revamp their admissions guidelines following the Supreme Court decision, they can also take a critical look at their legacy admissions policies.

"An institution committed to increasing access for underserved populations may seek to bring in more first-generation college students or Pell Grant-eligible students, among others," the guidance reads.

"In addition, nothing in the decision prevents an institution from determining whether preferences for legacy students or children of donors, for example, run counter to efforts to promote equal opportunities for all students in the context of college admissions."

Some schools have already cut their legacy admissions policies in the wake of the Supreme Court decision, including Virginia Tech, which announced the move earlier this month. Advocates have challenged legacy admissions practices at elite schools following the Supreme Court's decision, arguing the schools unfairly favor the children of alumni over students of color.

The Chica Project, the African Community Economic Development of New England, and the Greater Boston Latino Network filed a federal civil rights complaint against Harvard after the Supreme Court decision, alleging legacy admissions violate the Civil Rights Act and are "a discriminatory practice of giving preferential treatment in the admissions process to applicants with familial ties to wealthy donors and alumni ('legacy applicants')."