The Changing Face of Equity in Admissions

For most colleges, the Supreme Court ruling banning consideration of race in admissions changes very little. About 95% of colleges in the U.S. admit 50% or more of their applicants, and race is not a significant factor in the admissions decision for most colleges if it is considered at all. On the contrary, most colleges are trying to fill seats in their classes, not choosing between many highly qualified applicants to fill each place in the incoming class. Yet the changes in how we talk about equity in admissions will impact who applies to our colleges and how we need to market our programs to potential students.

The challenge for most higher education institutions will be keeping their applicant pool strong during the coming enrollment cliff. Continuing to reach out to students from diverse backgrounds will be crucial in recruiting the largest number of eligible students. Colleges and universities need to constantly shift their enrollment marketing to fit the times and respond to the needs of prospective students to maintain a thriving campus where all students feel welcome to learn.

Why Diversity Matters for Colleges

Studies have shown that racial and socioeconomic diversity in higher education benefits students of all races and economic backgrounds. Findings include that interaction with peers of other races improves learning outcomes, including cognitive skills, and increases personal growth. In addition, social justice reasons exist for embracing underserved students in higher education, which can assist in social and economic mobility. Plus, with a smaller pool of prospective students due to demographic shifts, increasing the percentage of students from historically underserved groups can help bolster enrollment numbers while providing opportunities to deserving students from all backgrounds.

Even colleges with open enrollment and high acceptance rates will see some impacts from the ban on affirmative action. Students of color may be discouraged from applying to schools and feel less welcome in higher education, which could reduce applications to all colleges. One factor may be students worried that they will be the only students like them if the diversity goes down, so attracting a diverse cohort of students should be a focus. Helping each student see the overall diversity of your campus can attract more students to apply.

The Impact of Affirmative Action Bans

If we look at states that banned affirmative action in college admission, California and Michigan are most often cited. A 1996 proposition banning affirmative action in the public University of California system caused a 40% drop in Black and Hispanic enrollment at the two most competitive schools: UC Berkeley and UCLA. Since a 2006 ban on consideration of race in Michigan, Black enrollment has dropped by 44% and Native American registration by 90%. Both public college systems have worked hard to use other methods to diversify their student populations to little effect. Both state systems have competitive admission, so they are the types of schools that see a more significant impact from removing race from admissions consideration.

Graduate schools saw similar drops in minority enrollment. Medical schools in six states that banned affirmative action saw an average 17% drop in enrollment by underrepresented students of color. However, both Michigan and California public schools saw initial drops in enrollment by Black, Latino, and Native American students immediately after the bans took effect. Yet enrollments by these groups have since rebounded with other strategies for attracting and admitting students. The success of their methods signals some hope for other highly selective schools and programs that want to maintain or improve the diversity of their student bodies.

On the other side of this debate, Oklahoma filed a brief with the court supporting race-neutral admissions. Oklahoma already has an affirmative action ban in place and stated that the “University of Oklahoma is just as diverse today” as before the ban. These less competitive schools may not have felt the sharp drop in diversity of their student bodies because there was less fierce competition for spots to begin with. This may be the reality for the majority of schools across the country which are working hard to fill seats rather than turning away most applicants.

 How to Keep Equity and Diversity in Admissions

While it is hard work for selective schools to recruit and admit applicants from diverse backgrounds without affirmative action, suitable methods can be effective. For less selective schools competing for applicants to fill spots, using proven strategies to attract diverse students is yet another way to provide the benefits of education to the broadest possible pool of students.

To bolster admission with race-neutral policies in place, the Urban Institute has some recommendations for best practices:

  1. Class-based affirmative action can use the proxy of socioeconomic status to improve the diversity of incoming students. While this may not have as much impact in recruiting underserved minority students, it can enhance economic diversity, giving more students of all races a leg up in higher education.
  2. Percentage plans guarantee admissions to the top 10% of students in their high school. Texas has done this, and though it had less impact on racial diversity, it did mean that students from districts with poor schools had opportunities in college, even if their standardized test scores or other markers of achievement were lower.
  3. Targeted recruitment of students from racially diverse areas can increase applications from underserved minorities. Because the loss of affirmative action might discourage applicants of color, colleges can counter this by extending the welcome mat in high schools and areas with high diversity. Making students feel welcome on your campus requires more outreach, but it can be part of your integrated strategy to recruit and retain the highest numbers of eligible students.
  4. Test-free or test-optional admissions policies have not yet been shown to increase minority enrollment definitively. Still, they can be part of a more holistic admissions process that can be more encouraging to all students. If the experience of the pandemic is any judge, underserved minority student groups increased at selective schools that went test-free. Removing points of friction that could be barriers to applying can improve the size of your applicant pool.

The Upshot

Although each university and college is unique, the climate of higher education more broadly can impact your school in various ways. If the number of students applying to college goes down across the country due to the race-conscious admissions ban, all colleges will be competing for a smaller number of prospective students. Whatever you can do in your own admissions practices to encourage diversity can help support your campus environment and contribute to a stronger higher education landscape.

To better target your most likely prospects, partner with AMG to leverage your data and improve your enrollment yield. Contact us to find out how.

If you’d like to learn more about how we can help you adapt to the evolving education marketing landscape and ramp up your efforts, please contact us today.

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