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US College Diversity Strategies After Affirmative Action

How colleges plan to factor in race without asking about race. Schools roll out new essay prompts and software updates for application readers, while worrying about legal exposure.

By Melissa Korn

Rice University is among the schools that say they are tweaking their essay questions or adding new ones in light of the ruling.PHOTO: BRANDON BELL/GETTY IMAGES

Colleges are rethinking what information they ask from applicants—and even which words they use to extract those details—as they react to last month’s Supreme Court ruling that dramatically limited how they can consider race when selecting students.

Schools are also making changes to where they scout for potential students, how application files get reviewed, and longstanding policies governing which groups of candidates get preferential treatment. School officials say they remain committed to enrolling a diverse class of students, even if the tools they can use have changed. They have to move quickly; most applications go live on Aug. 1.

The Supreme Court forced a tectonic shift in college admissions when it said schools could no longer take race into account when assessing applicants or give preference to applicants based on race. But Chief Justice John Roberts said in the majority opinion that colleges can still consider applicants’ discussions of how race affected their lives, “so long as that discussion is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability that the particular applicant can contribute to the university.”

Rice University, Colorado College, Hampshire College and Lehigh University say they are tweaking their essay questions in light of the ruling. Some are still finalizing the exact language.

“The idea is to provide a vehicle for students of all backgrounds and all contexts to feel as though they can tell their story in a way that the rest of the application might not allow them to do,” said Dan Warner, Lehigh’s vice provost for admissions and financial aid.

Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., will use Roberts’s own words in its new essay prompt: “Drawing upon examples from your life, a quality of your character, and/or a unique ability you possess, describe how you believe your goals for a college education might be impacted, influenced, or affected by the Court’s decision.”

The Wall Street Journal asked more than 50 selective colleges and universities what changes they are making to their applications, fall recruiting calendars or other elements of their admissions process—including the use of binding early-decision programs and the practice of giving extra credit to athletes or children of alums.

About 35 said they were still reviewing the ruling and weren’t ready to discuss firm plans. A few said they were advised by legal counsel not to speak publicly about potential changes.

Art Coleman, managing partner and co-founder of EducationCounsel, a legal and policy consulting firm that works with schools, said the court ruling didn’t provide guidance on how schools can recruit, whether race can still be considered for financial-aid awards, or what might justify looking at race in other elements of the process.

“You open the door and you’re stepping into blank space,” Coleman said. “The fear of litigation is real.”

Edward Blum, the conservative activist behind the lawsuits that led to the Supreme Court decision, sent letters earlier this month reminding 150 schools to heed the new legal limitations. Sen. J.D. Vance (R., Ohio) added to the worry with a letter to Ivy League universities, and Oberlin and Kenyon colleges. “The United States Senate is prepared to use its full investigative powers to uncover circumvention, covert or otherwise, of the Supreme Court’s ruling,” he warned.

Much of the work schools are doing in the wake of the ruling is behind the scenes, including updating software programs to ensure that those reviewing applications can’t see whether an applicant filled in the optional check box listing their race or ethnicity—which can still be used for federal reporting purposes—or how the racial mix of the admitted class is shaping up midcycle.

Some offices are also revising staff guidelines to defend against what they see as nearly inevitable allegations of violating the law. They may include reminders that the notes readers put on applications should focus on why someone’s unique perspective or experience might enrich the campus community, rather than just that they would bring diversity.

In light of the limitations the ruling puts on giving special consideration to students of color, many college-access advocates are pushing schools to stop giving preferential treatment to the children of alums, who at many schools are overwhelmingly white and wealthier than the general applicant pool.

The U.S. Department of Education opened an investigation this week into the use of donor and legacy admissions at Harvard, one of the two schools named in the Supreme Court affirmative-action cases. The probe comes in response to a civil-rights complaint filed against Harvard after the ruling that alleged legacy preferences disproportionately benefit white applicants and disadvantage students of color.

On Wednesday, Sens. Jeff Merkley (D., Ore.) and Chris Van Hollen (D., Md.) and Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D., N.Y.) reintroduced legislation to stop universities from giving preferential treatment to children of alumni and donors. They say their aim is to ensure equity in the admissions process.

In recent weeks, Wesleyan University and the University of Minnesota announced they would no longer give any extra consideration to legacy applicants; Minnesota also won’t take into account whether an applicant has ties to school staff. They join a small but growing roster of institutions ignoring legacy status, including the University of Illinois, Johns Hopkins University and Amherst College.

“The Supreme Court said you can’t use race affiliation. Why should you be able to use family affiliation?” said Wesleyan President Michael Roth.

Roth said that while he is concerned about potential financial fallout, the school previously rejected most legacy applicants and still received plenty of donations.

The most resource-intensive changes will have to do with recruiting, as schools look to make their applicant pools more diverse. Heights Philadelphia, a nonprofit that works with about 3,000 minority students across that city, is already hearing from additional colleges looking to partner on issues such as arranging campus visits, demystifying the application process and getting out the word about scholarship offerings.

“We have been really heartened by hearing from institutions that want to do this better,” said Sara Woods, co-president.

Colorado College admissions dean Karen Kristof asked her staff to rethink which high schools they visit this fall, paying extra attention to ones within the state. There is no extra budget, so the office is reducing other expenses, such as cutting down on the print run of its 46-page informational brochure.

“This is not the time to just keep doing what you’ve always been doing. You do that at your own peril,” Kristof said.

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