If there is any hope following the Supreme Court’s decision to gut affirmative action and overturn more than 40 years of precedent last week, it might be this: Selective colleges and universities are suddenly pledging “unwavering commitment” to access and inclusion.
If only many of them had really made that effort in the first place.
I’m still reading through heartfelt statements from college presidents touting the importance of race-conscious admissions and having people from different backgrounds represented on their campuses.
Yet our years of reporting and collecting data on this issue at The Hechinger Report show little evidence they’ve actually done much to diversify their student bodies, even before the affirmative action ruling. Black student enrollment in colleges and universities has been dropping steadily, while many flagship universities lag way behind when it comes to enrolling their state’s Black and Hispanic high school graduates.
And nearly 700 schools have been raising prices paid by their lowest-income students – who are disproportionately Black and Hispanic – more than the prices paid by their highest-income ones.
Many college presidents are spinning another narrative now that the Supreme Court has struck down the use of race in admissions, expressing dismay and promising to do better, although many acknowledge they aren’t sure what that will look like legally.
Let’s take, for example, six selective upstate New York liberal arts colleges where estimated annual costs top $81,000, according to The Hechinger Report’s newly updated Tuition Tracker tool, based on federal data derived from first-year, first-time students.
Together, these colleges, which all filed amicus briefs in the Supreme Court case, put out a joint statement after the decision, pledging their commitment to “creating a living and learning community that reflects diversity of thought, interests, backgrounds, and experiences.”
Of these, both St. Lawrence University and Hamilton College have enrollments that are just 3 percent Black, according to our tuition tracker tool. All are less than 15 percent Hispanic. Similar sentiments and commitments came from the acting president of Kenyon College in Ohio (3 percent Black), and the president of Whitman College in Washington (2 percent Black).
Other reassurances to do better came from schools like Wesleyan University in Connecticut, which is 6 percent Black and 12 percent Hispanic. “We are determined to create a diverse community, and our admission and financial aid teams have been preparing over the last several months to craft policies that will do that,” said the statement from President Michael Roth and Amin Abdul-Malik Gonzalez, vice president and dean of admission and financial aid.
None of the statements addressed why it has been so hard for these highly competitive elite colleges to diversify when the use of race in admissions was an option, at least in the nine states that never banned affirmative action, although the need for full-pay students certainly plays a role.
“Even with affirmative action, many colleges were slow to act,’’ said Atnre Alleyne, co-founder of TeenSharp, a national organization that has placed hundreds of high-performing Black, Hispanic and low-income students in top colleges.
Alleyne told me he’s not sure what the new landscape will mean as even fewer slots are available in schools he counted on to not only recruit and offer substantial scholarships to his students, but help them feel welcome on campus.
“Even with affirmative action, many colleges were slow to act.’’Atnre Alleyne, co-founder of TeenSharp, a national organization that has placed hundreds of high-performing Black, Hispanic and low-income students in top colleges
Jeff Selingo, a longtime higher-education author whose latest book took him inside three college admissions offices, said during a live discussion last week that many colleges “have been kind of lazy about recruiting and finding students all over the place,” although he believes the affirmative action decision “will force colleges and universities … to look at their practices going forward.”
Alleyne said he hopes so: He’s heartened that more of his students got into selective colleges that recently went test-optional and eliminated SAT and ACT test score requirement. He also emphasized how life-changing it is for students from underrepresented backgrounds with few resources and connections to find their way into the nation’s elite institutions.
“Many of these schools have a huge endowment that can help our students go debt free,” Alleyne said, rattling off examples of TeenSharp students who graduated recently without loans from places like Cornell University in New York and Carleton and Macalester Colleges in Minnesota, and are now becoming leaders in their fields and helping out their parents financially.
“We should not resign ourselves that these schools are not for our children. … Many were built on the backs of slavery, and they should do right for them,” Alleyne added. “We are going to continue to push and fight for them.”
One disheartening example of what that fight ahead could look like comes from California, a state that banned affirmative action in 1996. A quarter of colleges there said they were unable to meet their diversity and equity goals, according to an amicus brief filed with the Supreme Court in support of Harvard’s and UNC’s race-conscious admissions programs.
OiYan Poon, the co-author of Rethinking College Admissions and a visiting professor at the University of Maryland, is among those watching the aftermath of the court’s decision, to determine how and if colleges are capable of change.
At the University of California at Berkeley, the freshman class in 2021 was 20 percent Hispanic, in a state where 54 percent of high school graduates are Latino. Just 2 percent were Black.
“There is so much work that needs to be done,” Poon told me, including on her list changes in admissions offices, greater state investment in higher education and more money for ethnic studies departments and cultural centers.
Poon joined me on a panel I moderated on the topic at SXSW.edu in March, and is also among those who believe colleges must re-examine athletics applicants – some 85 percent of student athletes are white – and drop legacy admissions.
We speculated what colleges might have to say if the court told them they could no longer prioritize children of donors, something for which panelist Natasha Warikoo, a Tufts sociology professor and author, has long advocated. Some colleges have actually done so, including Amherst, where the proportion of applicants admitted who had some kind of family connection to the school has dropped from 11 percent to 6 percent since the college decided to stop giving preference to legacy students in 2021. Many Ivy League schools enroll some 15 percent legacy students.
President Joe Biden has also taken aim at legacy admissions, noting last week that he instructed the Department of Education “to analyze what practices help build more inclusive and diverse student bodies and what practices hold that back — practices like legacy admissions and other systems that expand privilege instead of opportunity.”
Warikoo is skeptical that more colleges will roll it back, though.
“They worry about the financial implications, and also, without increased financial aid, they [legacies] will just be replaced by other high-income kids,” she pointed out.
Still, there’s new momentum to end legacy admissions: On Monday, Lawyers for Civil Rights, a nonprofit based in Boston, filed a civil rights complaint on behalf of Black and Latino community groups in New England, alleging that legacy admission gives an unfair boost to children of alumni, who are most often white, and discriminates against students from underrepresented backgrounds.
Meanwhile, we can count on college presidents to remain simultaneously confused – and outraged.
And critics, like Evan Mandery, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the author of Poison Ivy: How Elite Colleges Divide Us, will continue to call them out, as he did in an Apple News podcast I listened to last week.
Mandery also wants highly selective colleges to get rid of early admissions, which overwhelmingly favors the wealthy, and wants them to drop consideration of SAT and ACT scores given that students with money can pay for preparation and take the tests many times.
He’d also like colleges to assign more value to applicants who have actual jobs (like working at Taco Bell) and participate in activities that don’t require money, instead of playing pricey club sports like fencing and squash and other pursuits that are often limited to the affluent.
He isn’t optimistic though. “These preferences are massive,” he said. The court did nothing to stop colleges from considering these “proxies for wealth,” he said, or from moving accepted students through a pipeline of privilege that follows them to the workforce.
Until they do, based on last week’s decision, the most elite U.S. colleges will most likely look even whiter and become increasingly out of reach.
This story about affirmative action in college admissions was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters.