Expert Commentary

6 tips for covering race-based affirmative action in college admissions

Researchers who study affirmative action offer journalists advice on covering the issue in advance of the upcoming U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

affirmative action
(Image generated by artificial intelligence system DALL.E 2 with directions from Carmen Nobel)

Colleges and universities nationwide are awaiting the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on two lawsuits challenging race-based affirmative action at America’s oldest private university, Harvard University, and its oldest public university, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The conservative-majority court, which will likely release its rulings this summer, could require higher education institutions to stop giving preference to Black, Hispanic and Native American students as a way to diversify enrollment. While several states have already prohibited their public universities from considering race and ethnicity when evaluating applicants, the practice remains common among many of the country’s most selective schools. 

The nonprofit Students for Fair Admissions, which brought the lawsuits against Harvard and UNC in 2014, argues that giving underrepresented minorities an edge is unfair.

Higher education officials generally do not consider Asian students underrepresented minorities. Among young adults in the U.S., Asians are most likely to go to college. In 2020, 64% of Asian 18- to 24-year-olds were enrolled in undergraduate or graduate programs, compared with 41% of white 18- to 24-year-olds, 36% of Black and Hispanic 18- to 24-year-olds, and 22% of American Indians and Alaska Natives of the same age, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Attorney Amy Howe explains the basic facts of the two Supreme Court cases for SCOTUSblog, an independent blog she cofounded that is dedicated to covering the nation’s highest court.

In the lawsuit it filed against Harvard, Students for Fair Admissions “maintains that Harvard violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which bars entities that receive federal funding from discriminating based on race, because Asian American applicants are less likely to be admitted than similarly qualified white, Black, or Hispanic applicants,” Howe writes.

“The University of North Carolina, the group argues, violates the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, which bars racial discrimination by government entities, by considering race in its admissions process when the university does not need to do so to achieve a diverse student body. Federal courts in Boston and North Carolina rejected the group’s arguments and upheld the universities’ admissions policies, prompting the Supreme Court to take up the cases.”

Surveys in recent years have found the American public largely opposes admissions officials using race and ethnicity to help them decide who gets into the best colleges.

When the Pew Research Center surveyed a nationally representative sample of 10,441 adults last year, nearly three-fourths said race and ethnicity should not factor into admissions decisions. Meanwhile, 67% of a nationally representative sample of 4,408 adults who participated in a Reuters/Ipsos poll in February said college admissions should be based only on merit.

Most of the 3,931 degree-granting institutions in the U.S. do not employ race-based affirmative action. In fact, about 30% are community colleges, which typically admit all or nearly all applicants.

The most prestigious schools are the most exclusive. Only 2% to 30% of applicants get into the 100 undergraduate institutions with the lowest acceptance rates, the U.S. News & World Report’s newest ranking, based on the fall 2021 entering class, shows.

Harvard’s acceptance rate was 4% that year, according to the ranking. Four other schools — the California Institute of Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton University and Stanford University — also had acceptance rates of 4%.

UNC admitted 19% of its applicants, as did Boston College, Boston University, Wesleyan University, Washington and Lee University, the College of the Ozarks and the Rhode Island School of Design.

To help newsrooms report on race-based admissions practices, we interviewed researchers who study affirmative action. We asked what journalists need to know and how they should cover the issue in the months leading up to and immediately following the Supreme Court decisions.

We spoke to scholars whose work demonstrates the benefits of affirmative action as well as those whose research reveals negative consequences, including Duke University economist Peter Arcidiacono, who served as an expert witness for Students for Fair Admissions.

In all, seven experts — two professors of education, four economists and the senior associate editor of the Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race — shared a wealth of helpful insights and advice. We distilled the bigger points into these six tips.

1. Broaden news coverage beyond undergraduate students at prestigious private colleges. If the Supreme Court orders changes to admissions practices, public universities likely will be impacted most.

“There’s a tremendous focus on super-selective private universities,” says Yale University economist Zachary Bleemer. “The big impact won’t be selective private universities. It will be at selective public universities.”

Ivy League schools and other elite private colleges have relatively small enrollments. For example, Harvard has 7,103 undergraduate students. Williams College, which the U.S. News & World Report ranks as the best national liberal arts college in the country, has approximately 2,000.

Top-tier public universities, on the other hand, typically serve significantly more students. UNC has 19,743 undergrads, its website shows. The University of Texas at Austin, which comes in at No. 10 in the 2022-2023 Best Colleges rankings, has 41,309 undergrads.

Affirmative action already is not allowed at the two public universities tied for the No. 1 spot: University of California, Berkeley and University of California, Los Angeles. In 1996, California voters approved Proposition 209, a state constitutional amendment that, among other things, forbids public colleges and universities there from giving students preferential treatment based on race, ethnicity, sex, color and national origin.

When Bleemer studied California’s affirmative action ban, he found it affected public universities statewide. During the first few years after the ban’s adoption, many of the Black and Hispanic students who likely would have gotten into UCLA and UC Berkeley if affirmative action had been allowed ended up attending less competitive schools. Meanwhile, the university system, as a whole, “annually received about 250 fewer Black and 900 fewer Hispanic applications after Prop 209, almost 80% of whom would likely have been admitted to at least one UC campus,” he writes in a paper published last year in The Quarterly Journal of Economics.

Journalists also need to do a better job explaining that a nationwide ban on affirmative action in college admissions would impact lots of schools — not just the most selective ones, Bleemer says.

“When you’re talking about how the Supreme Court decision is going to reshape American higher education, you have to talk about [the potential impact of] limiting Black and Hispanic students’ access to their state flagship public university and other top public universities,” he says.

2. Ask higher education officials how they will make admissions decisions and maintain student diversity if the Supreme Court limits or prohibits affirmative action.

Researchers urge journalists to press higher education officials to explain their plans for responding to the Supreme Court rulings. With the rulings just months away, college administrators likely have been consulting with attorneys and members of their school’s board of directors to devise plans for maintaining student diversity in case the court puts new restrictions on or outright forbids affirmative action.

V. Thandi Sulé, an associate professor of higher education at Oakland University, recommends asking schools whether they will use standardized test scores in the same way they have been using them to select students.

Black, Hispanic and Native American students tend to receive lower scores than white students on college-entrance exams such as the SAT and ACT. A paper published last year in the American Educational Research Journal finds minority student enrollment improved at private colleges and universities that eliminated test score requirements between 2005 and 2016. After implementing a test-optional policy for undergraduate admissions, the number of underrepresented minorities attending the 99 schools studied rose 10.3% to 11.9%, on average.

“It’s important to know if institutions will continue their reliance on high stakes testing like ACT and SAT,” Sulé wrote in an email.

Be sure to also ask officials at graduate schools, including medical and law schools, about their plans, says David Mickey-Pabello, a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA’s Civil Rights Project and Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. His research reveals underrepresented minority enrollment fell 3.4 percentage points at public university medical schools in six states — Texas, California, Washington, Florida, Michigan and Nebraska — after admissions officers stopped considering student race and ethnicity.

He stresses that no recruitment effort or policy change to date has improved student diversity as much as affirmative action.

All of the research has basically said there’s no magic formula for replacing race-based admissions,” says Mickey-Pabello, who is also the senior associate editor of the DuBois Review. “There are ways to get close to it, but there will never really be a substitute for it.”

3. Help audiences understand that admissions processes vary widely across higher education institutions.

Admission officers say the four biggest factors they consider when evaluating applications for undergraduate study are high school grade-point average, the rigorousness of the high school curriculum, grades in college preparatory courses and college-entrance exam scores, according to a 2019 report from the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Some of the next most important factors: the student’s essay, class rank, extracurricular activities, demonstrated interest in the institution, and counselor and teacher recommendations.

While schools tend to look at the same information, they don’t all give the same weight to each component of a student’s application. Admission decisions also are influenced by factors unique to each school — for example, whether it is public or private, the size of its enrollment, its acceptance rate and whether it gives preference to certain students, including athletes and underrepresented minorities.

Dominique Baker, an associate professor of education policy and leadership at Southern Methodist University, says the public needs to understand that admission processes, and the amount of weight some schools give student race and ethnicity, can vary substantially.

She recommends journalists interview people who work directly with students and their applications — not just college presidents and other high-ranking administrators — to explain how individual admissions offices evaluate applicants and operate on a day-to-day basis.

“People have a lot of misconceptions [about admissions processes] and a lot of things people think happen are fundamentally inaccurate,” says Baker, a former assistant dean in the University of Virginia’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions.

Among schools that practice affirmative action, race and ethnicity often serve as a tiebreaker when admissions officers have difficulty choosing from a pool of strong candidates. Even if Black, Hispanic and Native American students receive a very small edge, it can make all the difference when tens of thousands of students are vying for a few thousand seats in a school’s incoming freshman class.

Michael Lovenheim, the Donald C. Opatrny ’74 Chair of Cornell University’s Department of Economics, points out that underrepresented minorities are but one of several student groups given preferential treatment at selective institutions. Athletes and “legacy” students, the children or grandchildren of alumni, often are given preference, too.  

“Many institutions give a bump for being a legacy or being good at a particular sport or playing an instrument or having an interest in specific fields,” Lovenheim says. “There’s a wide range of preferences that are being exercised during the admissions process. [Affirmative action] is one — but not the only one.”

4. Look to the states that prohibit affirmative action at public colleges and universities to get a sense of how a nationwide ban could impact higher education broadly.

Researchers have conducted dozens of studies examining the short- and long-term effects of affirmative action bans in higher education. Much of the scholarship focuses on California, partly because it was the first state to bar racial preferences at public colleges and universities. Washington followed two years later, in 1998, and then Florida did in 1999. In 2020, Idaho became the most recent state to end the practice in public colleges and universities.

In all, these nine states prohibit their public colleges and universities from giving preference to Black, Hispanic and Native American applicants: Arizona, California, Florida, Idaho, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Washington. Many public universities in Texas, including the Texas A&M University System, do not give preferences based on race and ethnicity.

“This gives us a lot of information about what happens when states ban affirmative action,” Bleemer says. “We know how this changes admissions policy. We know how it changes diversity and the long-term effects for Black and Latino students.”

For example, a 2012 paper in The Review of Economics and Statistics predicts that a public university with an admission rate of 60% would see its Black student enrollment fall an estimated 1.19 percentage points and its Hispanic enrollment decline by 1.58 percentage points following a ban on race-based admissions. At a public university with an admission rate of 30%, Black and Hispanic enrollment would drop even more — by an estimated 2.15 percentage points and 4.16 percentage points, respectively, notes the author, Peter Hinrichs, who’s currently a senior research economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.

A 2013 study in the American Educational Research Journal looks at affirmative action bans in several states, concluding that fewer underrepresented minorities pursued graduate degrees in science-related fields after public universities stopped considering race and ethnicity. Liliana Garces, now a professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education, discovered engineering programs in particular grew less diverse.

A 2020 article in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis shows underrepresented minority applications and enrollment fell across 19 public universities that stopped considering race in admissions, even as high school enrollment in their states became more diverse. The researchers — Mark Long, the dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of California, Riverside, and Nicole Bateman, a former senior research analyst at the Brookings Institution — analyzed application and enrollment patterns in nine states, although 13 of the 19 universities they examined are in Texas, Florida and California.

The gap between the percentage of underrepresented minorities attending those universities and the percentage of underrepresented minorities going to high school in those states increased immediately after the universities stopped factoring in race and ethnicity. The authors of that paper note that the gap continued to widen through 2015.

“In the year after affirmative action was banned, Black, Hispanic, and Native American students’ share of applicants to the 19 public universities we study was, on average, 14 percentage points below their share of high school graduates in these universities’ states, whereas their gap in enrollment at these same universities was only modestly larger, 17 percentage points,” the authors write.

5. Push colleges and universities for greater transparency in admissions data.

Richard Sander, an economist and law professor at UCLA Law, urges journalists to push higher education institutions for more detailed student data. He has had difficulty getting data for his own research on affirmative action at law schools.

Sander’s paper on the issue, published in 2004 in the Stanford Law Review, raised questions about whether affirmative action hurt some Black law school students more than it helped. He has tried for decades to get more recent data and data from more law schools to test his “mismatch” theory: that weaker students admitted to elite law schools through affirmative action policies often struggle and would have more academic and career success by attending less competitive schools.

He acknowledges his paper has drawn ample criticism, some of it from prominent scholars, and that the evidence he used was circumstantial. He needs better data, he says, to do a more complete analysis.

In 2008, he sued the State Bar of California to get individual students’ law school grade-point averages, bar exam scores, race and other data — an effort The Los Angeles Times wrote an editorial supporting. But the lawsuit, which took 10 years to litigate, was ultimately unsuccessful. In 2018, he sued the University of California system seeking a wide variety of student data.

“Schools in the last 20 years have become dramatically less transparent about what they’re doing in admissions,” Sander says, adding that better access to data also would allow journalists and researchers to check whether colleges and universities comply with the upcoming Supreme Court decisions.

6. After the Supreme Court rules, look for changes in how institutions treat legacy applicants and support underrepresented minorities.

While the lawsuits brought by Students for Fair Admissions challenge the lawfulness of race-based admissions practices, they have prompted wider discussions about the types of undergraduate students given preferential treatment for reasons having nothing to do with their academic ability.

Arcidiacono, of Duke University, predicts that if Supreme Court justices find it is unconstitutional to give preferences to Black, Hispanic and Native American students, it will be tougher for schools to justify giving preference to legacy students.

His study of public documents released as part of the lawsuit Students for Fair Admissions brought against Harvard offers insights into how the institution makes admissions decisions. He examined 166,727 applications from U.S. students who would have graduated from 2014 to 2019 and found that 69% of legacy students were white.

Other research suggests legacy students at other prestigious schools also are disproportionately white.

If the court bans affirmative action, my suspicion is there will be a lot of pressure to get rid of legacy admissions,” Arcidiacono says.

Baker, of Southern Methodist University, says journalists should watch for signs schools are cutting back on or shutting down programs designed to give financial, academic and emotional support to underrepresented students. Examples of such initiatives: tuition scholarships targeting Hispanic students and programs encouraging women of color to pursue careers in the so-called STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  

 “Higher education institutions are leery of lawsuits and sometimes they can overcompensate,” Baker says. “The biggest concerns are when institutions try to preemptively protect themselves and end up cutting a whole swath of things because they don’t want to be sued.”

About The Author