Holistic Admissions: A Beacon of Hope in the Wake of Affirmative Action Repeal

In a recent survey conducted by Acuity Insights, admissions leaders from higher education institutions weighed in on the implications of the Supreme Court’s June 29, 2023 ruling on affirmative action. 

The survey delves into the strategies these institutions plan to employ to ensure equitable access amidst this pivotal legal shift. A striking 79% opposed the removal of affirmative action.

When asked whether the affirmative action ban will broadly have an impact on student diversity in higher education, 73% of respondents indicated a major or moderate impact; while 24% said the policy ban’s impact would be minor. 

Following the reversal of affirmative action policies, survey participants highlighted three primary obstacles they foresee for themselves and their peers:

  • The largest proportion, 45%, expressed their concern about the difficulty of recruiting and retaining a diverse student body.
  • 24% pointed to legal issues as their primary worry.
  • 21% indicated that attracting the best candidates to their institution would pose the greatest challenge.

Let’s dive deeper into the key findings of the survey.

A steadfast move towards holistic admissions

Fifty-six percent of survey respondents are either leaning into or have already fully adopted a holistic admissions approach. In the wake of the affirmative action repeal, holistic admissions has emerged as the beacon of hope, ensuring universities continue driving their mission of diversity and equity.

Additionally, 29% are revamping their recruitment strategies, while 10% are giving more emphasis to the Casper weight, which is proven to reduce demographic differences. Lastly, 15% are introducing a scoring system for socioeconomic diversity.

Over 23% either did not know how their school would be shifting to support diverse admissions, or did not respond to the question,– indicating the fact that the ruling is so recent that some schools are still navigating the changes and legal implications and deciding how to adjust. 

Supporting authenticity and minimizing bias

More than ever, institutions are keen on extracting authentic stories from their prospective students. Schools are relying on tools like personal statements and letters of recommendation to provide deeper insight. Notably, Acuity’s Casper assessment is gaining momentum as an evidence-based tool that supports a holistic view of the applicant and enhances diverse outcomes. Casper’s open-response format enables applicants to delve into the “why” behind the real-world scenarios presented, providing them with the chance to contemplate and communicate the valuable perspectives gained through their own life experiences. Furthermore, Casper offers a time-efficient means of obtaining a dependable and reliable understanding of non-academic understanding when compared to traditional academic assessments.

One respondent noted on the impact of the affirmative action ban (paraphrased): Institutions that heavily relied on affirmative action may see a slight decrease [in diverse representation], but for most institutions, especially those actively recruiting underrepresented minorities (URMs) as part of their mission, the conversation about race is expected to persist informally and with different strategies.

An important note on personal statements and recommendation letters

The survey found a strong pattern amongst respondents who are now relying on personal statements and letters of recommendation to gain deeper insights into applicants’ personal experiences. However, this brings with it new challenges since these inputs are known to have low reliability (especially with new technology such as ChatGPT, Bard, or other AI) and are time-consuming to review, putting additional burden on admissions teams. Schools should continue to review their non-academic requirements to ensure that they are evidence-based, do not further bias against marginalized applicants, and support ongoing DEI and holistic admissions efforts in a positive way. 

Schools from states who already banned affirmative action or introduced anti-diversity legislation in some way: Holistic admissions takes center stage

Fifty-one percent of the survey respondents are from a state where there were already affirmative action restrictions and/or anti-diversity legislation, prior to the Supreme Court ruling. 

These respondents indicated that they were more advanced in their adoption of various strategies to ensure diversity at their schools.

Seventy percent of respondents use holistic admissions strategies to review their applicants; 38.5% revised their recruitment strategy; more than 15% increased Casper weight, and 15% are using a score for socioeconomic diversity.

The socioeconomic disadvantage scale, or S.E.D, was developed at University of California Davis (U.C. Davis) by Dr. Mark Henderson, Associate Dean for Admissions at the UC Davis School of Medicine. This scale could be what has inspired the 18% of respondents who indicated they’d be doing something similar. U.C. Davis, which is located in California, a state that has banned affirmative action since 1996, is one of the most diverse medical schools in the country. Acuity Insights hosted a webinar with Dr. Mark Henderson and Dr. Cynthia Perry, Associate Academic Dean for Admissions, Texas Tech, El Paso who both spoke to their strategies used to achieve their mission and diversity goals at their separate institutions. 

For those who said they were already using holistic admissions practices, the survey asked if they are finding positive outcomes from adopting this strategy. The majority (54%) indicated that they have seen great results with their holistic admissions strategies or feel they are on a positive path and are experiencing partial success with their methods. 15% indicated that they have not achieved their goals, but believe they’re on a good path with a need for more effective strategies. 12% are unsure of the impact of their strategies as they are still gathering outcome data.

This data is a testament to the effectiveness of reviewing an applicant beyond simply academic scores. The 12% of respondents who are unsure may have only implemented holistic approaches more recently; and 15% remain optimistic and open to trying new approaches – both markers for a resilient admissions program that is willing to put in the effort to see positive and diverse outcomes.

Schools who are new to an affirmative action ban: Higher education’s robust response

Forty-three percent of respondents are from a state where affirmative action policies were allowed and had no anti-diversity legislation prior to the 2023 Supreme Court ruling.

Seventy-three percent say that they foresee either a minor impact or no impact on their mission, diversity goals, and outcomes. 18% answered that there would be a moderate impact. None said that the ruling would have a major impact; multiple respondents noted that they do not believe there will be a major impact because they remain committed to a holistic review of applicants and their mission and diversity outcome goals will remain the same – however, they are continuing to evolve their admissions practices. 

One open-response stated (paraphrased): We typically make decisions using a holistic approach, which already includes efforts to assist underrepresented groups, and we have no plans to alter this approach.

This confidence could be due in part to the fact that the respondents use Casper, Acuity’s soft skills assessment tool that has proven to reduce demographic differences by 25% to 50%, when compared to academic assessments. 

In an open-ended question, one respondent’s paraphrased response indicated their commitment to pursue non-academic metrics: To compensate for not considering race, we’ll focus on categories indicative of educational barriers, such as 1st generation status, lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and residents of underserved areas.

Our commitment to partners in the journey

The higher education community’s unwavering dedication to equity and diversity post-affirmative action is truly commendable. At Acuity Insights, we consider it a privilege to be part of this journey with our partners. Our commitment goes beyond tools and surveys; it’s about standing as partners for both institutions and applicants, as admissions is redefined for a brighter, more inclusive future that helps everyone realize their full potential.

Navigating through the challenges following the affirmative action repeal is certainly demanding, yet the unified resolve and innovative approaches to delivering on the mission of equity and access is remarkable. 

Survey Methodology

51 individuals responded to the online and anonymous affirmative action survey provided by Acuity Insights. These individuals are Acuity Insights customers and represent a variety of disciplines from different universities across the United States.

51% of respondents identified that they are from a state where affirmative action was struck down or a state that was passing or working on passing anti-diversity legislation, 43% of respondents are not from a state where affirmative action had been disallowed or repealed prior to the ruling – 6% did not indicate the category to which they belonged.  The majority of respondents identified themselves in the following roles within their university (9.80% preferred not to disclose their role):

  • Dean/Director of Admissions (25.49%)
  • Associate/Assistant Dean/Director of Admissions (21.57%)
  • Admissions Committee (13.72%)
  • Program Director (15.69%)
  • Other (13.72%)

Looking for more information?

  • Read our press release on the affirmative action survey
  • Watch our webinar on overarching strategies for institutions to achieve their mission and diversity goals with guest speakers:
    • Dr. Mark Henderson, Associate Dean of Admissions at University of California Davis
    • Dr. Cynthia Perry, Associate Academic Dean for Admissions, Texas Tech University, El Paso.