Redefining Higher Education: A New Chapter in College Admissions

The educational landscape has undergone a profound transformation in the last year, leaving students, admissions teams, and universities in a near-unrecognizable state of change. 

While the winds of change had been stirring for some time, the pivotal Supreme Court decision on June 29, 2023, set an entirely new stage for college admissions. This new era – where schools can no longer consider a student’s race as a small part of their overall application – requires schools to tap into innovative and evidence-based recruitment strategies and assessment standards to cultivate a well-rounded student body using fair admissions processes.

The End of Traditional Admissions

So, what exactly has changed for college admissions in the last year? First and foremost, there is now a ban on race-conscious admissions policies. This is not the first time affirmative action has been under scrutiny; in 1996, California Proposition 209 repealed affirmative action in the state, ultimately leading to decreased representation of Latino, Black, and Native American students throughout California’s public universities, with a longer-term impact on lifetime income. While not without flaws, affirmative action has led to increased diversity, and the ban on race-conscious admissions will certainly be reflected in representation at universities – unless they choose creative alternatives. 

Non-Academic Preferences Don’t Always Reduce Bias

As we look at the ban’s impact, the debate over the fairness and relevance of legacy admissions in the modern academic world continues to intensify. Legacy admission, which NPR referred to as “affirmative action for rich kids,” is notably still a legal policy for schools. However, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to ban race-conscious admissions, some schools are choosing to remove legacy admissions. In July, private liberal arts college Wesleyan University announced that it would be ending its legacy admissions policy; Wesleyan President Michael S. Roth, told the New York Times that it was “a sign of unfairness to the outside world.” Amherst College opted to end legacy admissions in 2021, and is considered one of the first highly selective colleges to abandon the policy, which favors students with family members who previously attended the institution. 

Other admissions policies have received much less critical discourse than legacy admissions but definitely need attention, including athletic recruitment. One study on athletic scholarships and admission conducted by a group of economists found that applicants from the wealthiest 1% of households received a 24% bump in admissions based solely on their athletic ability. Another study focused specifically on Harvard students found that 43% of students were admitted for non-academic preferences, including athletics, legacy connections, inclusion in the dean’s interest list, or being the offspring of a faculty or staff member. When these advantages were removed, a significant 75% of these students would have faced rejection.

Navigating the Watershed Moment

Higher education institutions throughout the United States have a challenging path forward. To pursue a diverse pool of students with a variety of backgrounds, skills, experiences, and socioeconomic statuses, schools must commit to reviewing their admissions policies and assessing areas where some applicants will be disadvantaged over others.

Policies like legacy admissions and athletic preferences must be reviewed to ensure they’re not creating a barrier to access for marginalized students. Many questions remain unanswered regarding how the affirmative action ban will impact admissions and how universities can support their incoming students and applicants and maintain their commitment to their mission. 

In August 2023, the Departments of Education and Justice issued some constructive guidance to educational institutions on navigating the removal of race-conscious admissions. U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said: “The resources issued by the Biden-Harris Administration today will provide college leaders with much-needed clarity on how they can lawfully promote and support diversity, and expand access to educational opportunity for all following the Supreme Court’s disappointing ruling on affirmative action.” 

The Supreme Court refused to hear a case in February this year that challenged a Virginia high school’s admissions policy. The policy was implemented in 2020 to promote diversity. The decision to reject the case showed that the Supreme Court still has not provided clear guidance on what policies are considered acceptable or not.

Forging a Path Forward

As this new admissions landscape unfolds, universities must bear a pivotal responsibility in transforming the fairness and equity of their admissions. It’s key that institutions review the criteria that define a successful applicant. Relying solely on metrics that have historically disadvantaged marginalized applicants, including standardized knowledge-based tests, legacy affiliations, and athletic recruitment, is no longer tenable. Instead, schools must pioneer innovative approaches that find the hidden potential of a diverse array of students.

One way schools can do this is by evaluating applicants in an evidence-based and holistic way. Admissions teams should consider adding factors such as a candidate’s soft skills, including empathy, teamwork, and resilience. In addition, admissions teams can review an applicant’s extracurricular activities and community work. However, it’s important to acknowledge that these types of experiences are not always accessible to socioeconomically disadvantaged students who might need to work after school, have limited funds for extracurriculars, and lack transportation. In addition, recognizing the strength that lies in overcoming adversity is equally crucial. By embracing these alternative metrics, universities can identify students with drive, resilience, and creativity.

While the Supreme Court decision shook the foundations of higher education, it has also led to a discourse, like never before, on equity in admissions and how best to achieve it. Universities and colleges now have a unique opportunity to mould a different future that embraces all students. This societal shift requires re-evaluating what makes a successful higher education candidate. By championing innovative, holistic assessment methods and eliminating the status quo, institutions can lead towards a brighter and more equitable educational landscape.

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