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Universities around the country will be watching carefully as the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments in two college admissions cases on Oct. 31, 2022. Many legal pundits predict that affirmative action, a practice that gives preferences to groups that have been discriminated against, will be abolished when the court issues its decision next spring. That could prevent both private and public universities from considering a student’s race or ethnicity as one of many factors in admissions, along with grades, test scores and extracurricular activities. 

Colleges that still want to build a diverse student body that reflects the country’s demographics are looking for alternatives. Two states could provide valuable information. Researchers have studied what has happened at public universities in Texas and California, which have banned the use of affirmative action since 1996.

Texas moved to a Top Ten Percent policy in 1998 under which public universities accept the cream of the crop at every high school in both wealthy and poor neighborhoods. (In practice, students now need to be in the top 6 percent of their high school class for admission to the University of Texas at Austin.)  But that didn’t help increase the percentage of Black and Hispanic students all that much. Immediately after the affirmative action ban, the percentage of Black and Hispanic students at the state’s two flagship campuses, UT-Austin and Texas A&M, fell from 18 percent to 13 percent. Four years after the Top Ten Percent policy started, the percentage of Black and Hispanic students increased by only 1.6 percentage points at the flagship campuses. Researchers say that tiny increase was probably due to demographic changes in the state and not because the plan was working well.

Thousands of high-achieving students at low-income high schools weren’t taking advantage of the Top Ten Percent policy. Even though they would have been automatically admitted to UT-Austin and Texas A&M, they didn’t bother to apply. Nearly half of the state’s high schools never or rarely sent students to the flagships for 18 years after the Top Ten Percent policy went into effect. Higher income high schools that originally funneled kids to Texas’s flagships continued to be the main suppliers of students.

California had a similar experience. After voters eliminated affirmative action in a 1996 referendum, the University of California system tried outreach programs and an automatic acceptance policy for students in the top 9 percent of their high school classes. In 2001, the UC system moved to “holistic” admissions, looking at many factors beyond test scores and grades. Beginning in 2020, the system eliminated SAT and ACT tests altogether. But UC says its efforts haven’t been enough to keep up with changing demographics in the state. The state’s high school seniors in 2021 were 54 percent Latino and 5.4 percent Black. But that fall, the University of California’s incoming freshmen were 26 percent Latino, and 4.4 percent Black. It was worse at the most selective campuses. (Enrollment data for 2022 isn’t yet available.)

The University of California’s decision to scrap SAT or ACT scores is unusual, but more than 1,700 universities and colleges have adopted test-optional admissions. Many hoped that it would level the playing field with applicants who can’t afford expensive SAT tutors. But research shows that it has failed to substantially raise the share of low-income students or students of color. One study published in 2021 found that the share of Black, Hispanic and Native American students increased by only 1 percentage point at about 100 colleges and universities that adopted the policy between 2005-06 and 2015-16. A separate study of a group of selective liberal arts colleges that adopted test-optional policies before 2011 didn’t find any didn’t find any improvement in diversity on those campuses.

Another research team is interviewing college admissions officers to understand why. In preliminary findings, the researchers learned that colleges were replacing standardized tests with metrics that were even more biased toward wealthier and white students, such as letters of recommendation and expensive extracurricular activities. Admissions officers admitted that it was difficult to weigh an applicant with test scores against one without, and the one with test scores often won.

Meanwhile, other researchers are finding evidence that it might not be Black and Hispanic students who are getting the biggest preferences in the admissions office, but rather privileged white students. More than 43 percent of white students admitted to Harvard between 2009 and 2014 fell into four preferential categories: athletes, legacies (the children of alumni), the children of big donors or faculty and staff children.

Alumni children are up to eight times more likely to be accepted at elite colleges, according to one estimate. Another study at an unnamed elite Northeastern college found that so many legacy students had been admitted that they outnumbered the number of Hispanic students. It will be a tough habit to break because legacy students matriculate and donate in much higher numbers, helping colleges meet enrollment and fundraising targets. In the study, a whopping 42 percent of legacy graduates were flagged as potential top donors. Only 6 percent of non-legacy graduates were flagged as potential top donors.

Based on this research evidence, there don’t seem to be easy substitutes for affirmative action that can help foster diversity. One small ray of hope comes from a financial aid study at the University of Michigan. It found that upfront guarantees of free tuition were effective in getting more disadvantaged students to apply and enroll. However, this experiment was conducted in rural areas and largely affected low-income white students. It’s unclear if it would be equally effective with students of color. 

Previous Proof Points cited in this column

Texas 10% policy didn’t expand number of high schools feeding students to top universities

Affirmative action workaround isn’t working, researchers find

Test-optional policies didn’t do much to diversify college student populations

Study of 99 colleges found 1 percentage point improvements attributable to the policy before the pandemic

Colleges that ditched test scores for admissions find it’s harder to be fair in choosing students, researcher says

Diversifying the student body remains an elusive goal

Harvard critic finds white jocks and rich kids get preferential treatment in admissions

Economist estimates that three-fourths of white students who are athletes, legacies, big donors or faculty children would have been rejected

Why elite colleges won’t give up legacy admissions

A study of 16 years of admissions data at one college reveals that alumni children are more likely to matriculate and donate 

Study finds guaranteed free tuition lures low-income students

Requiring financial aid forms stops many low-income students from applying

This story about college admissions was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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