New guidance from the Biden administration on Monday urges colleges to use a range of strategies to promote racial diversity on campus after the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in admissions.
Colleges can focus their recruiting in high minority areas, for example, and take steps to retain students of color who are already on campus, including by offering affinity clubs geared toward students of a certain race. Colleges can also consider how an applicant’s race has shaped personal experience, as detailed in students’ application essays or letters of recommendation, according to the new guidance.
It also encourages them to consider ending policies known to stint racial diversity, including preferences for legacy students and the children of donors.
“Ensuring access to higher education for students from different backgrounds is one of the most powerful tools we have to prepare graduates to lead an increasingly diverse nation and make real our country’s promise of opportunity for all,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement.
The guidance, from the Justice and Education departments, arrives as colleges across the nation attempt to navigate a new era of admissions without the use of affirmative action. Schools are working to promote racial diversity without provoking legal action from affirmative action opponents.
Students for Fair Admission, the group that brought the issue to the Supreme Court through lawsuits against Harvard and the University of North Carolina, sent a letter to 150 universities in July saying they must “take immediate steps to eliminate the use of race as a factor in admissions.”
In its guidance, the Biden administration offers a range of policies colleges can use “to achieve a student body that is diverse across a range of factors, including race and ethnicity.”
It also offers clarity on how colleges can consider race in the context of an applicant’s individual experience. The court’s decision bars colleges from considering race as a factor in and of itself, but nothing prohibits colleges from considering “an applicant’s discussion of how race affected the applicant’s life,” the court wrote.
How to approach that line without crossing it has been a challenge for colleges as they rework admissions systems before a new wave of applications begin arriving in the fall.
The guidance offers examples of how colleges can “provide opportunities to assess how applicants’ individual backgrounds and attributes — including those related to their race.”
“A university could consider an applicant’s explanation about what it means to him to be the first Black violinist in his city’s youth orchestra or an applicant’s account of overcoming prejudice when she transferred to a rural high school where she was the only student of South Asian descent,” according to the guidance.
Schools can also consider a letter of recommendation describing how a student “conquered her feelings of isolation as a Latina student at an overwhelmingly white high school to join the debate team,” it says.
Students should feel comfortable to share “their whole selves” in the application process, the administration said. Previously, many students had expressed confusion about whether the court’s decision blocked them from discussing their race in essays and interviews.
The administration clarified that colleges don’t need to ignore race as they choose where to focus their recruiting efforts. The court’s decision doesn’t forbid schools from targeting recruiting efforts toward schools that predominately serve students of color or low-income students, it says.
Countering a directive from Students for Fair Admissions, the new guidance says colleges can legally collect data about the race of students and applicants, as long as it doesn’t influence admissions decisions.
Echoing previous comments from President Joe Biden, the guidance urges colleges to rethink policies that tend to favor white, wealthy applicants. “Nothing in the decision prevents an institution from determining whether preferences for legacy students or children of donors, for example, run counter to efforts to promote equal opportunities for all students,” the guidance said.
At the same time, the Justice and Education departments warned that they’re ready to investigate if schools fail to provide equal access to students of all races, adding that the administration “will vigorously enforce civil rights protections.”
The guidance arrives as colleges work to avoid the type of diversity decline that has been seen in some states that previously ended affirmative action, including in California and Michigan. Selective colleges in those states saw sharp decreases in minority student enrollment, and some have struggled for decades to recover.
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