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College Admissions Without Affirmative Action -- Race In College Admissions

Updated: Apr 22

On June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court found against both Harvard University and UNC-Chapel Hill regarding how they used race when admitting college students. So, what is next for colleges? I believe we will see:

  1. more litigation and

  2. “work arounds” by colleges to enroll minorities.

More Litigation on College Admission and Financial Aid

Nonprofits and some State officials have been sending letters to colleges threatening to sue the colleges if they do not comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling. There is some grey area as to what does and does not comply with the Supreme Court ruling. For instance, providing a racial preference to Native Americans who hold papers showing they belong to a tribe may be allowed. Colleges will face litigation over these grey areas.

Universities that (1) offer legacy preferences and (2) are highly selective will be sued for discriminating against minorities. Minorities will typically be underrepresented among legacies and will be able to argue that legacy preferences discriminate against them. Some universities will follow the lead of Johns Hopkins, Wellesley, and other universities and voluntarily stop offering legacy preferences before any court action.

Universities that offer preferences for major donors and are highly selective will be sued for discriminating against minorities. The Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education has already announced that it is investigating Harvard University’s practice of offering preferences to legacies and major donors.

Colleges that offer scholarships that are based in part on race will be sued for that practice. Colleges might lose those cases, but courts might view independently funded scholarships that use race as a factor as being constitutional.

College Work Arounds to Support Diversity

Will the Supreme Court ruling result in more students who are Asian or White getting admitted to highly selective colleges? Not necessarily. Colleges will start to use proxies to get a diverse student body. Here are some of the proxies they might use:

Class Rank

Admitting students if they are within a certain class rank (e.g., top ten percent) is one strategy colleges might use to admit diverse students. High schools in the U.S. remain segregated. Colleges might emphasize class rank in admissions by admitting a few students from a wide range of high schools. As an admission officer from Ohio State states, it believes: “talent is evenly distributed, but opportunity is not.”

However, some excellent students do not have a high class rank at rigorous high schools. Asian and white students attending highly rigorous high schools with many outstanding students might be less likely to gain admission to highly selective colleges when class rank is emphasized in admissions. If only a few students are admitted from a competitive high school, it might be extremely difficult to get admitted from that high school.

Geographic Diversity

Highly selective colleges often use geographic diversity when making admission decisions. They typically try to admit students from every State and State flagship universities often try to admit students from every county. Minorities in the U.S. are often in segregated communities. Colleges might start trying to market to and admit students from zip codes and high schools with a high proportion of underrepresented minorities.

First Generation

First-generation college students are those who have parents who did not complete a bachelor’s degree. Colleges might give additional consideration in admission to these students, who are more likely to be disadvantaged minorities.

English Not Spoken in Home

Some minority students are in families that immigrated to the U.S., and they might not speak English at home. American students from households where a language other than English is spoken at home might get a large bump in admissions for overcoming that obstacle.


College application essays are one way colleges learn about students. Colleges that do not already offer optional diversity essays may start to add them. Colleges that already offer optional diversity essays might make them mandatory for applicants, which Harvard University did for students applying to begin in 2024. The Supreme Court’s ruling states: “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 . . . .” This may prove a bit tricky for colleges to implement. Chief Justice John Roberts cautions in his ruling that: “universities may not simply establish through the application essays or other means the regime we hold unlawful today.” However, admission offices may consider such traits as courage, determination, and the ability to make unique contributions to a college.

Yale University has a new option among its essay choices asking: “Reflect on an element of your personal experience that you feel will enrich your college. How has it shaped you?” Students who have unique experiences have a chance to stand out when answering this question. The question is not necessarily a diversity question, but students with a diverse background may tend to provide more interesting responses.

Test-Optional and Review of Test Scores in Admissions

Test-optional and test-blind admissions, both of which became commonplace during Covid, will likely become permanent at many colleges. Colleges will not want to face litigation over admitting students with relatively low test scores. If the colleges don’t have the test scores, there is little evidence about discrimination using test score data. Economically disadvantaged students will typically not have access to meaningful test-prep, and their scores will likely suffer as a result. Colleges will want to admit some economically disadvantaged students to ensure diversity.

Some highly selective universities (e.g., Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, and CalTech) are starting to require some kind of a test score (Yale is accepting AP and IB scores as alternatives to SAT and ACT scores). The explanations for returning to requiring test scores vary among the universities. The test scores, however, will likely be viewed in the context of the student's high school. So a 1400 might be the highest score any student has at a high school serving disadvantaged students, but a common score at a school serving students from affluent families.

Recruitment and Outreach

Affirmative recruitment and outreach is a way colleges can increase diversity. Oftentimes economically disadvantaged minorities do not know they are strong candidates for either (1) college admission or (2) substantial financial aid. Colleges reach out to these minorities to educate them about admission and financial aid. The University of California schools (UCs) have not been allowed to practice affirmative action since 1996. Despite this limit, the UCs have been able to enroll minorities in part because of an expensive $500 million recruitment and outreach effort.

Improved Need-Based Financial Aid

Need-based financial aid is not directly an admissions practice, but colleges use it to get students to apply and to get them to enroll after being admitted. Colleges will likely try to increase need-based financial aid, which will help them attract and enroll disadvantaged minority students. For example, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill will now provide free tuition and fees to families from North Carolina who earn less than $80,000 per year.

Please check out my related blog on this topic about how to best react to eliminating Affirmative Action:

Educ8Fit Consulting

For more information about financial aid in general, please visit my website at Paying for College | Educ8Fit Consulting. Please contact Educ8Fit Consulting at either or College Admission Counseling | Educ8fit Consulting | United States, contactfor a free 30-minute consultation.

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