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Four things students need to know after the Supreme Court ruled against affirmative action

Here are four things aspiring college students of color and their families should know about what changes to expect in the admissions process.
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The Supreme Court ruling that selective colleges and universities can’t use race as a factor in admissions comes as the nation's students have become increasingly more diverse.

Over half are Latino, Black, Asian American or Native American, said Michele Siqueiros, the president of the Campaign for College Opportunity, a nonprofit group helping Californians go to college.

“We have more eligible students ready for college than we’ve ever had,” Siqueiros said.

At the same time, Black and Latino students are still underrepresented across selective and highly selective colleges and universities — institutions where fewer than half of applicants or fewer than 20% are accepted, respectively. They're also underrepresented in many states' flagship universities.

We asked experts to assess what the Supreme Court ruling means for students and families.

Does the ruling get rid of diversity in selective colleges' admissions?

No.

While the ruling focuses specifically on barring race as a factor in admissions, it doesn't limit institutions' outreach, engagement, retention or completion strategies aimed at enrolling diverse student bodies, said Deborah Santiago, the CEO and a co-founder of Excelencia in Education, an organization that promotes Latino college completion. "You can do all of those things in these communities,” she said.

Higher education scholars and counselors say the onus is on colleges and universities to ensure that their applicant pools include students of color — many of whom come from segregated school districts with fewer resources.

“One of the things that could shift is, really, how admission officers recruit around the country, because if you can’t take race into account, the only thing you really can control is how diverse your applicant pool is,” said Angel B. Perez, the CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Zamir Ben-Dan, an assistant law professor at Temple University, said higher education institutions will be able to continue to “promote diversity based on background, based on socioeconomic experiences,” among other experiences.

A wide array of experiences can still define what it means to have a diverse student body — including students' experiences, where they grew up and their areas of interest. When it comes to social and economic diversity, having to work while in school, being raised by a single parent, going to a private high school on a scholarship or even experiences with the family court system “are still very unique experiences that are going to shape how a student views the world,” Ben-Dan said.

Have previous bans on race-conscious admissions affected student diversity?

The short answer is yes.

State-level bans on using race-based affirmative action in Arizona, California, Florida, Idaho, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Washington have already given the country a glimpse of the consequences of prohibiting such a practice.

Research shows that in those nine states, the enrollment of students from underrepresented communities declined, even if other factors, such as class, were weighed more heavily.

In California, data showed that affirmative action helped Black and Latino university students.

Siqueiros saw a big decline in the number of Black and Latino students who applied to selective universities and colleges after the state banned affirmative action in the 1990s.

“There was a very real reaction from high school students who just chose not to even apply. There was also a dip in the number of students who applied, were admitted and chose not to enroll, compared to previous years,” Siqueiros said.

Henry Perez, 46, a Los Angeles resident who entered UCLA in 1995 and is the executive director of the nonprofit organization InnerCity Struggle, remembers being part of "one of the last, if not the last," affirmative action classes in the public education system in California.

Perez said he saw the sharp decline of students of color, particularly Black and Latino students, in UCLA and the University of California system. "It was devastating — we saw diversity really, really go down.”

Siqueiros now worries that the same pattern may echo across other states following the Supreme Court's ruling.

“There is a very real message that is being heard by students about whether they belong and whether they’re welcomed at campuses,” Siqueiros said.

Should students of color still apply to selective schools?

Absolutely, experts say.

“It’s probably going to be more important than ever to encourage minority and other underrepresented students to still apply,” said Andrew Belasco, a counselor and the CEO of College Transitions, a company that advises students and families through the college admissions and financial aid process.

What’s worrisome about the ruling is the “chilling effect of students who feel like they don’t belong,” because they’re being told, in one interpretation of the decision, that their identities and who they are as students of color don’t matter, Santiago said. “The question of whether they belong or not, I think it’s real.”

What's important to note, experts say, is that race was just one factor used to determine admissions at some selective colleges and universities — along with students' academic records, extracurricular activities, essays, recommendations and standardized test scores for some schools.

“No university has ever used race alone to admit a student,” said Jasmin Pivaral, the director of college culture for the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools. “So again, that goes back to a lot of the misconceptions — there are already so many false narratives about how race is used in admissions." 

While using race as a factor in admissions has drawn opposition for years, selective colleges and universities have always used other factors that have benefited more privileged students — such as whether an applicant's parent attended (what's known as a legacy admission) or whether an applicant went to a selective high school or boarding school.

Belasco said counselors like him are now making sure the ruling “does not communicate to underrepresented minorities that they should no longer consider some colleges.”

Against that background, it’s important to pay special attention to first-generation students, as well as to those who identify as Black or Latino, because they are more likely to “self-select out of going to a selective school,” said Eva Garza-Nyer, a counselor and the CEO of Texas College Advisor. “They’ll just assume ‘I have no chance.’”

Studies show students of color have higher graduation rates when they attend selective colleges, earn more after graduation and build more robust career networks.

Yet the number of Black and Latino yearly graduates from 100 highly selective colleges that presumably use race as a factor in admissions represent only 1% of all students in four-year colleges, according to an estimate by Stanford University sociologist Sean Reardon for The New York Times.

“What I would advise other counselors who are serving this population to do is to still encourage them to move forward and put their application out there,” Garza-Nyer said.

Does the ruling mean students can’t mention race when applying?

No.

The new ruling says a college or university can’t use race as a factor in determining whether a student should be admitted.

But students can still convey their racial or ethnic backgrounds through extracurricular activities and other application materials, such as essays and personal statements.

“If there are opportunities within the application to talk more about their identity, for instance, if there were situations where their identity influenced anything from the majors they decided to pursue or the courses they decided to take or if there were issues where they faced and overcame discrimination of some kind," Belasco said, "those are going to be important things to talk about within the context of an application if they’re no longer able to indicate their race in an application.”

However, that advice may vary across institutions, said Ben-Dan of Temple University.

It's possible that some colleges and universities “may, on their own, in response to the Supreme Court decision, forbid candidates from using their race so it can be said that they’re making their decisions without regard to race," he said.

Here’s what the Supreme Court opinion stated: “Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise."

That essentially means that if students talk about their race or ethnic backgrounds in their essays or mission statements, "then the university can consider it, to the extent of the relevance," Ben-Dan said. However, "the court gave no guidance whatsoever as to how this consideration is supposed to happen."

The Supreme Court still made clear that race can't be used as one of the deciding factors in admissions, as it has been for some colleges and universities: "But, despite the dissent’s assertion to the contrary, universities may not simply establish through application essays or other means the regime we hold unlawful today," the opinion said.