Biden administration unveils college admissions roadmap after Supreme Court ruling

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The Biden administration on Thursday issued guidance on how colleges can continue to diversify in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s seismic summer ruling invalidating race-conscious admissions.

Colleges continue to confront the fallout of the decision, which overturned decades of legal precedent enabling them to consider race as one factor in admissions. 

Most institutions accept a majority or all of their applicants, and have no need to factor in race. 

But the higher ed world has already observed the ruling’s ripple effects — including institutions eschewing racial considerations in other areas, like scholarships, which the high court did not address in June.

The U.S. Department of Education’s recommendations, released in a 66-page report, emphasizes the avenues colleges can legally explore to bolster socioeconomic and racial diversity in their classes. 

Ideas range from strengthening programs that offer historically underrepresented students a path into higher education, to abandoning admissions policies shown to favor White and wealthy applicants. Critics in recent months have pounced on legacy preferences, which give advantages to students with a family connection to an institution, but disproportionately benefit the affluent in the process. 

“This is a make or break moment for our country,” U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said during a Thursday event introducing the report. 

What advice does the administration have?

The Education Department peppered the report with examples of colleges’ strategies to bring in and support a diverse student body.

Federal officials stressed colleges of all types can take up these ideas, even though the Supreme Court ruling targeted race-conscious practices at two top-ranked private and public institutions — Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, respectively.

For starters, colleges do not need to disregard race when conducting outreach in admissions, the department said. They are free to target high schools with high shares of low-income students and racial diversity. 

Institutions can push, for instance, college access programs in these geographic areas, so long as they “do not give targeted groups of prospective students preference in the admissions process,” the administration’s report states.

Other programs that could improve access include summer and dual enrollment initiatives in which high school students take college-level courses. The Education Department cautioned, though, that sometimes these programs aren’t easily accessible for marginalized populations.

Further, the report states, colleges should contemplate dropping admission metrics like the SAT or ACT, which benefit wealthy applicants with resources for extensive tutoring.

Many colleges have drifted away from testing mandates amid the spread of COVID-19, which shut down many common exam sites. At least 2,000 colleges have adopted test-optional policies, including institutions that never historically asked for scores, according to a recent tally.

The agency also urged colleges, including prominent private institutions, to consider growing transfer programs, which can bring students from varying backgrounds onto campus. 

Education Department officials cited an arrangement between Northern Virginia Community College and George Mason University, a well-known public college in the same area. 

The institutions’ ADVANCE program helps advise students on their courseloads to ensure they’re not pursuing unnecessary credits for a two- or four-year degree. About 40% of participants come from low-income backgrounds, and most are students of color, the report states.

On the application side, colleges can increase emphasis on student “adversity and resilience” as admissions factors, according to the report.

That could mean learning more about whether students have experienced hardship or discrimination — including race-related prejudice. 

At first blush, this might seem to infringe on the Supreme Court ruling, However, Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority opinion, said that colleges can account for how students’ race affected their character — though he wrote they “may not simply establish through application essays or other means the regime we hold unlawful.”

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