Expert Commentary

Race-neutral alternatives to affirmative action in college admissions: The research

How can colleges maintain or improve student diversity now that the Supreme Court has ruled it unlawful to admit students based partly on race and ethnicity? We look at research on the effectiveness of race-neutral alternatives.

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

This collection of research on alternatives to race-based affirmative action in college admissions, originally published in May 2023, has been updated to include the Supreme Court’s June 29 ruling on the practice.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday struck down race-based affirmative action in admissions at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, effectively banning a longstanding, nationwide practice aimed at improving student diversity at top-ranking colleges and universities.

The ruling will require higher education institutions that give underrepresented minorities an edge in the application process to find new ways to bolster their enrollment of Black, Hispanic and Native American students. Military academies, however, are exempt.

The organization that brought the lawsuits, Virginia-based Students for Fair Admissions, accused Harvard and UNC of discriminating against white and Asian applicants. It sought to eradicate affirmative action in admissions, introduced in the 1960s and 1970s to help historically disadvantaged groups gain access to the most competitive and influential schools.

Although the practice has been challenged in court several times since 1978, the Supreme Court previously upheld the constitutionality of affirmative action policies, so long as student race and ethnicity were among a range of factors considered when evaluating applicants. Admissions officials generally do not consider Asians to be underrepresented minorities because young adults who are Asian are more likely to go to college than young adults from other racial groups.

As the two lawsuits made their way through the court system, higher education administrators investigated race-neutral strategies for recruiting and admitting more minorities. They have looked for insights from the nine states that have banned affirmative action at their public universities, beginning in 1996.

Race-neutral alternatives

Several alternate strategies have shown promise, although researchers estimate their impacts are relatively small. Academic studies have found none are as effective as race-based affirmative action, Zachary Bleemer, an assistant professor of economics at Yale University who studies college admission policies, told The Journalist’s Resource.

“States that have seen affirmative action bans do not offer a silver bullet for universities seeking to maintain racial diversity without race-based affirmative action,” Bleemer wrote in an email.

It’s unknown how many colleges and universities practice affirmative action in admissions because no person or organization tracks that information. Likewise, there are no formal counts of the number and types of race-neutral strategies schools use in place of affirmative action.

However, the most common race-neutral approaches include:

  • Giving preference to students with a lower socioeconomic status, typically determined by family income and the occupations and education levels of members of students’ households.

    In the U.S., a person’s race and ethnicity is closely linked to their socioeconomic status, with Black, Hispanic and Native American students more likely to have a lower socioeconomic status than white and Asian students. For example, in 2021, 19% of Hispanic children under age 18 lived in households in which at least one parent had not finished high school, compared with 3% of white and Asian children, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

    However, policies aimed at aiding students based on income or socioeconomic status do not just benefit underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities. Nearly half of undergraduate students who are the first in their families to go to college are white and not Hispanic, according to the Center for First-Generation Student Success, part of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.
  • Expanding recruitment efforts. Higher education officials often target high school students who are the first in their families to go to college and high schools located in lower-income areas.
  • Increasing the number and dollar amount of scholarships offered to students from low-income households or low socioeconomic backgrounds.
  • Introducing a “holistic” application review process, which takes into account students’ extracurricular activities, accomplishments outside school and lived experiences as well as traditional measures of academic ability such as test scores, academic awards and grade-point averages.

    Stanford University, which practices holistic admissions, tells applicants on its website that the approach helps admissions officers “understand how you, as a whole person, would grow, contribute and thrive at Stanford, and how Stanford would, in turn, be changed by you.”
  • Dropping the requirement that applicants take and submit their scores on college-entrance exams such as the SAT and ACT. The change benefits underrepresented minorities and lower-income students because they often earn lower scores than white and Asian students and students from higher-income backgrounds.
  • Adopting a “top percent” program. Florida, California and Texas have adopted programs that guarantee youth who graduate within a top percentage of their high school class a seat at one of their public universities. Such policies aim to diversify college enrollment by capitalizing on high levels of racial and ethnic segregation among high schools in those states.

    “Black and Hispanic students who rank at the top of their class disproportionately hail from minority-dominant schools,” Princeton University scholars Marta Tienda and Sunny Xinchun Niu write in a 2006 paper examining Texas’ Top Ten Percent rule, which guarantees Texas high school students who graduate in the top 10% percent of their class and complete other requirements admission to most public universities in the state.

Benefits, consequences of race-neutral alternatives

Michigan is one of nine states that prohibit affirmative action at public universities. In November 2006, voters there approved a state constitutional amendment known as Proposal 2, which prohibits all public institutions and agencies from discriminating against or giving preferential treatment to anyone based on race, gender, ethnicity and other factors.

The University of Michigan, a top-ranked public university, introduced a wide range of programs to replace affirmative action. Attorneys for the school argue race-neutral strategies have been expensive, time consuming and labor intensive.

After the law took effect in December 2006, the University of Michigan “was forced to radically alter its admissions process in order to even approach the diversity levels achieved prior to Proposal 2,” the attorneys write in a 36-page amicus brief filed with the Supreme Court late last year in support of Harvard and UNC-Chapel Hill.

“That change was so disruptive that the response not only took time — over 15 years and counting — but vast resources and efforts extending far beyond University campuses, as U-M developed extensive new race-neutral initiatives that reached into school districts around the state,” the attorneys write.

Those combined efforts helped the university raise its underrepresented minority enrollment to 13.5% in 2021 — slightly above where it had been the year before the state banned affirmative action. While an influx of Hispanic students helped U-M rebuild its enrollment of underrepresented minorities, the university has not been able to regain its footing with regards to Black and Native American students.

Neither has the California public university system, which has spent more than a half-billion dollars implementing alternate policies over the last 25 years, its attorneys note in another amicus brief filed last year with the Supreme Court.

The University of California system has adopted various race-neutral policies since voters there approved Proposition 209, a state constitutional amendment similar to Michigan’s, in 1996. That ban began with the freshman class of fall 1998.

The state’s most selective public universities — the University of California, Berkeley and University of California, Los Angeles — lost the most ground. Prior to the ban, 6.32% of freshmen at UC Berkeley were Black. In 2019, that figure dropped to 2.76%. The proportion of Native American freshman fell from 1.82% to 0.37%.

Hispanic enrollment, however, has grown across California’s public universities. But the state also has seen its Hispanic population swell in recent decades. This academic year, 56% of all children attending public elementary, middle and high schools there are Hispanic.

“UC has established a number of outreach programs aimed at students from low-income families, students whose families have little or no previous experience with higher education, and students who attend an educationally disadvantaged school,” attorneys for the university system write in their amicus brief, which also was submitted in support of Harvard and UNC-Chapel Hill.

“Because these outreach programs primarily target economically and educationally disadvantaged students, the extent to which they are able to reach underrepresented minority students depends on changing demographic patterns. By 2020, it had become more difficult for these outreach programs to reach African American and Native American students, even as more Latinx, Asian American, and White students benefited from them.”

Uncertainty ahead

It’s difficult to predict how race-neutral alternatives would affect all institutions that currently consider race and ethnicity when choosing students. That’s because much of the research on the topic focuses on public universities in a single state. Often, it is California, the most populous state and home to the two public universities ranked highest in the country in the U.S. News & World Report’s 2022-2023 Best Colleges rankings.

When scholars publish a paper that examines race-neutral strategies at one school or a group of schools in one state, the results  typically apply only to the institutions studied. It is erroneous to assume other colleges and universities will have exactly the same experiences.

Even so, researcher’s findings can provide insights into how enrollments might change if private and public colleges and universities must stop practicing race-based affirmative action.

“They’re helpful in thinking about what would happen in other states even if differences in states’ student bodies or university landscapes might lead to different outcomes in different places,” Bleemer wrote to The Journalist’s Resource.

A narrow segment of affirmative action-related research looks at how well race-neutral alternatives work. It’s hard to evaluate individual policies, however, because college administrators often use several strategies at once, Mark Long, the dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of California, Riverside, wrote to The Journalist’s Resource.

Also, it is not always clear what exactly institutions are doing differently to boost minority enrollment. Some changes “might be subtle and not advertised by the schools — for example, changes in the inputs used to make admissions decisions,” Long added.

Demographic shifts have made it tougher for scholars to estimate the impact of race-neutral alternatives. Scholars have seen Hispanic enrollment climb at some public universities after they stopped using affirmative action. In many cases, they believe those improvements are the result of changes within the Hispanic population, not university interventions.

Nationwide, the number of Hispanic youth attending public elementary, middle and high schools jumped from 7.7 million in fall 2000 to 14.3 million in fall 2022, the U.S. Department of Education reports. The student population, as a whole, grew less than 6% over that period.

More Hispanic students are going to college. In 2021, 59% of Hispanics aged 16 to 24 years were enrolled in college, up from 53% in 2000, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show.

Long and Nicole Bateman, a former senior research analyst at the Brookings Institution, investigated changes among students who applied to and enrolled at public universities in states that prohibit affirmative action.

The researchers studied data from 19 public universities across all nine states spanning from the early 1990s to the mid-2010s — before and after bans were put in place. Their conclusion: Race-neutral strategies were an “insufficient” replacement for affirmative action at those 19 schools.

“We find a sizable decrease in [underrepresented minorities’] share of admittees immediately following the affirmative action bans,” Long and Bateman write in their analysis, published in 2020. “Of more concern, the trends in nearly all of these universities are negative in the following years.”

State flagship universities and selective institutions, including the University of Florida, University of Georgia, University of Nebraska-Lincoln and UC Berkeley, were most affected.

The researchers argue that raising underrepresented minority enrollment is too large a job for colleges and universities to do alone, especially considering many of the factors that influence enrollment are outside education officials’ control.

State policymakers need to do more to reduce economic disparities among racial groups and bolster Black, Hispanic and Native American children’s academic achievement, Long and Bateman write.

“To help university administrators, public administrators and policymakers should particularly note the large racial gaps in kindergarten readiness and note that these gaps are maintained as students progress through the education system,” the researchers add. “Thus, without sustained, focused attention on mitigating gaps that emerge in the first years of life, we should expect persistent racial inequality in higher education.”

A roundup of research

Journalists covering college admissions need to familiarize themselves with the research on race-neutral strategies for boosting student diversity. Below are summaries of academic papers that examine three of the most common approaches: test-optional policies, holistic review and “top percent” plans. The featured studies focus primarily on undergraduate student enrollment.

To better understand how student diversity changes at institutions that give preference to applicants based on socioeconomic status, read our piece explaining the 2018 analysis, “What Levels of Racial Diversity Can Be Achieved with Socioeconomic-Based Affirmative Action? Evidence from a Simulation Model.”

Also, check out the reporting tips several prominent researchers offer journalists who are preparing to cover the upcoming Supreme Court decisions.

Test-optional policies

Untested Admissions: Examining Changes in Application Behaviors and Student Demographics Under Test-Optional Policies
Christopher T. Bennett. American Educational Research Journal, February 2022.

The study: The author looks at how undergraduate student diversity changed at private colleges and universities in the U.S. after they started letting students apply without submitting SAT and ACT scores. Bennett examines 99 private institutions that enacted test-optional admissions policies between the academic years 2005-2006 and 2015-2016 and compares them with a group of 118 private institutions that enacted or announced test-optional policies for the 2016-2017 academic year or later.

The findings: At the schools studied, test-optional policies were associated with small increases in underrepresented minorities, lower-income students and women. Bennett estimates the number of underrepresented minorities who enrolled in schools that had implemented test-optional policies rose 10.3% to 11.9%. He adds that although the increase was “fairly substantial in relative terms, such effects correspond to a modest 1 percentage point increase in absolute terms in the share of [underrepresented minority] students among the entering class.”

In the author’s words: “For institutions seeking dramatic shifts in the student populations they serve, test-optional policies would likely need to represent one facet of a more comprehensive plan.”

Holistic review

Affirmative Action and Its Race-Neutral Alternatives
Zachary Bleemer. Journal of Public Economics, April 2023.

The study: Bleemer examines three admissions policies — race-based affirmative action, holistic review and top-percent policies – to find out which did the best job raising underrepresented minority enrollment across California’s public university system. To investigate these policies, Bleemer built a database representing 2.2 million freshmen at nine undergraduate campuses between 1994 and 2021. Six campuses, including UCLA and UC Berkeley, implemented holistic review between 2002 and 2012.

He explains that holistic review “eliminates universities’ use of fixed weights over the wide variety of admission criteria used to judge applicants, providing evaluative flexibility designed to benefit applicants whose academic preparation was hindered by limited pre-college opportunity.”

The findings: Race-based affirmative action had the largest impact, increasing underrepresented minority enrollment by about 850 freshmen per year, or 20%, during the years of the study period it was allowed. Holistic review had the second-largest impact. It boosted Black, Hispanic and Native American enrollment about 7%, on average, across the six campuses using that policy. Bleemer writes that about 45 underrepresented minorities enrolled as a result of holistic review in 2002, but the figure swelled to about 600 in 2017. Meanwhile, top percent policies resulted in an enrollment bump of less than 4%.

In the author’s words: “These findings suggest that the most common policies adopted to replace affirmative action in states where race-conscious university admission preferences have been prohibited have had non-trivial but comparatively small [underrepresented minority] enrollment effects in California, suggesting that preserving racial and socioeconomic diversity using race-neutral admission policies will require policy innovation.”

Top percent plans

Texas Top Ten Percent Plan: How It Works, What Are Its Limits, and Recommendations to Consider
Stella M. Flores and Catherine L. Horn. Report for the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, December 2016.

The study: Flores and Horn compare top percent plans in Florida, California and Texas, pointing out their value, strengths and shortcomings. The report focuses heavily on Texas’ Top Ten Percent Plan, the most frequently studied. The authors also synthesize what is known about percent plans and offer recommendations for education leaders considering adopting race-neutral alternatives.

The findings: Data collected on Texas’ percent plan provide a mixed view of its effectiveness in building underrepresented minority enrollment at Texas public universities. Assessments of the program that take into account the state’s changing demographics indicate Hispanics have been less likely to go to college since the initiative started, Flores and Horn write. The report raises questions about whether Black students gaining automatic admission through Texas’ percent plan are more likely to attend the state’s lower-tier public universities than its most selective ones.

In the authors’ words: “In sum, percent plans vary both in their guarantees and in the ways in which demographic context nuances understanding of their effectiveness.”

Academic Undermatching of High-Achieving Minority Students: Evidence from Race-Neutral and Holistic Admissions Policies
Sandra E. Black, Kalena E. Cortes and Jane Arnold Lincove. American Economic Review, May 2015.

The study: Black, Cortes and Lincove examine the application choices of minority students in Texas who graduated in the top 25% of their high school class. They look specifically at whether two admissions policies — Texas’ Top Ten Percent Plan and holistic review — contribute to academic undermatching, or the tendency for high-achieving minority students to attend lower-tier public universities even though their academic abilities would allow them to go to the state’s two highly selective flagship schools, the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University.

The researchers analyzed data for about 35,000 students who graduated in the top 10% of their high school class in 2008 and 2009 and about 31,000 students who graduated in the top 11% to 25% of their senior class the same two years.

The findings: Only 29% of Black students and 32% of Hispanic students who graduated in the top 10% of their class enrolled at selective flagship universities in Texas despite being guaranteed admission. Meanwhile, 48% of their white counterparts and 51% of their Asian counterparts did. Academic undermatching was even more common among Black and Hispanic students who graduated in the top 11% to 25% of their class and whose applications underwent holistic review. Of the Black and Hispanic students in this group, 5% enrolled at flagship campuses.

In the authors’ words: “Both Black and Hispanic top 10% and top 11-25% students are more likely to enroll at less selective public universities or two-year colleges, and less likely to enroll in private or out-of-state four-year universities than their white student counterparts, which suggests highly-qualified minority students are choosing lower quality Texas universities, rather than leaving the state for higher quality institutions.”

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