• Joanne Jacobs

What will replace racial preferences in college admissions?

Based on yesterday's oral arguments, the U.S. Supreme Court's conservative majority appears likely to reject race-based affirmative action in college admissions. Students for Fair Admissions is suing Harvard and the University of North Carolina.


Conservative justices asked if the use of race would ever end, questioned the academic benefits of racial and ethnic diversity and wanted to know why Asian-American applicants got such low "personal ratings."

Harvard attorney Seth Waxman claimed race was an important factor in very few admission decisions, then compared it to the edge an oboe player would get if the orchestra needed one.

"We did not fight a civil war about oboe players," Chief Justice John Roberts said. "We did fight a civil war to eliminate racial discrimination and that's why it's a matter of considerable concern."


"A ruling striking down affirmative action will probably rein in the excesses but not be the death knell for racial and ethnic diversity that some fear," writes Andrew J. Rotherham on Eduwonk. Selective universities will not be obliged to admit solely on test scores or grades.


"Progressive affirmative action proponents are in an awkward spot here because they are stuck simultaneously arguing that affirmative action isn’t really much of a plus factor so it’s not a big issue from a constitutional standpoint and that, also, if we get rid of it then the results will be catastrophic," he writes.


He thinks class-based affirmative action would add diversity and possibly more viewpoint diversity. "And obviously we might get serious about improving K-12 schools."


Richard D. Kahlenberg, a true-blue liberal who backed Students for Fair Admission, makes the case for basing affirmative action on social class rather than skin color.


"The current framework of race-based preferences . . . disproportionately helps upper-middle-class students of color, and pits working-class people of different races against one another," he writes.


"Harvard picks classes that look like today’s racially diverse America" -- but much wealthier, Kahlenberg writes. "About as many students come from the top 1 percent by income as the bottom 60 percent."

. . . Harvard and UNC give Black students more than twice the admissions boost that economically disadvantaged or first-generation college students receive. (At Harvard, the boost for legacy students is also much larger than for first-generation college students.) Seventy-one percent of Black, Latino, and Native American students at Harvard come from college-educated homes with incomes above the national median; such students are in roughly the most advantaged fifth of families of their own race.

"On academic measures, Asian American applicants score higher on average than white, Black, or Latino applicants" to Harvard, writes Kahlenberg. Admissions officers rate them lower on subjective attributes such as “integrity, helpfulness, courage, kindness, fortitude, empathy, self-confidence, leadership ability, maturity, or grit” to limit their numbers.


Most Americans reject race-based preferences but support class-based preferences in recent polls, he writes.


When California and Texas universities stopped using race-based preferences, they turned to alternatives, such as outreach programs and guaranteed admission for the top students at each high school, writes Hechinger's Jill Barshay. It made little difference in Black and Hispanic enrollment at the most selective campuses.


Test-optional admissions doesn't do much for racial and ethnic diversity either, she writes. "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."


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