An End to Affirmative Action Must Not—and Need Not—End the Pursuit of Diversity at Selective Colleges and Universities
If, as is widely expected, the US Supreme Court issues a decision in 2023 that significantly limits, if not completely prohibits, the use of race in college and university admissions, it would come at exactly the wrong moment in the ongoing struggle to address our racial history. To further socioeconomic mobility and racial equity in the United States, selective colleges and universities must create more opportunities for high-achieving students from racially minoritized backgrounds, not fewer.
But even if the Court deems existing race-conscious admissions policies unconstitutional, it is nevertheless likely that the decision will leave room for selective colleges and universities to pursue alternative strategies that do not explicitly factor in students’ race, yet which may enable them to sustain student diversity.
In a new issue brief, we discuss a range of strategies for pursuing racial and ethnic diversity at selective colleges through race-neutral means. We organize these strategies in three broad categories: (1) admissions policies that focus on socioeconomic background; (2) recruiting strategies designed to increase student diversity by expanding and broadening the pool of admissible students; and (3) eliminating criteria in the admissions process that highly correlate with race and income. In each case, we identify the pros and cons and include a brief bibliography of the available evidence on each policy.
None of these policies on their own is likely to yield a student body at selective colleges and universities as racially and ethnically diverse as an approach that directly considers race. It is possible that weaving several of these policies together could approximate the current state. An important feature of many of these options is that they would require significant increases in need-based financial aid while simultaneously reducing reliance on strategies that favor wealthier students. At the same time, there is a critical need for greater public financial support for the large number of broad-access institutions that are already educating most of America; public funds should not be diverted from that group of institutions toward the generally better-resourced selectives.
Notwithstanding these challenges, we believe that selective public and private institutions must avail themselves of every legal recourse to increase their support of students from historically underserved and lower-income backgrounds. This is preeminently the time for perseverance and adaptation to new legal realities. The need for selective colleges and universities to contribute to greater socioeconomic mobility and racial equity—and the risks of not doing so—are too great to stand impassively on the sideline.