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Report Examines Prevalence of Race-Conscious College Admissions Policies

Just weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court said it would revisit the question of affirmative action in higher education, a new report sheds light on how widespread the use of race in admissions remains.

The report from the American Council on Education, a key Washington-based umbrella group for higher education, paints a picture of university leaders and admissions officers striving to form racially and socioeconomically diverse entering classes in the face of legal constraints and other challenges.

The heart of the report is a survey of 338 four-year colleges and universities that responded to the research request. Of that number, 92 institutions (or 27.2 percent) still consider race in admissions; 19 (5.6 percent) do not consider race, but used to do so; and 227 (67.2 percent) have never considered race.

The issue is as salient as ever because the Supreme Court announced late last month that it will once again examine race-conscious college admissions, in a return to the high court of a case known as Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin.

In its 7-1 ruling in Fisher in 2013, the Supreme Court confirmed that there was a compelling interest in diversity in higher education. But it suggested that universities had to consider race-neutral strategies for diversity and that it was up to reviewing courts, not the universities themselves, to decide whether no workable race-neutral alternatives existed so that a race-conscious plan could be upheld.

A federal appeals court last year again upheld the "holistic review" program at the University of Texas, which involves a review of an applicant's full admissions file and potentially takes the applicant's race into account for roughly one-quarter of the places in the entering freshman class.

The Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal of that decision by Abigail Fisher, a white applicant who was denied admission to UT-Austin. The case will be heard during the court's next term, which starts in October.

The ACE survey found that only 13 percent of institutions that used race-conscious strategies altered their admissions programs after the Fisher decision. The report notes that many who advise colleges and universities on their legal obligations, including the U.S. Department of Education, reminded institutions that the ruling did not outlaw the use of race in admissions or efforts to pursue campus diversity.

Many institutions may have concluded that their race-conscious plans pass muster under Fisher, or they may be waiting for the legal dust to finally settle in that case, the report says.

Many Diversity Strategies in Use

The ACE report is titled "Race, Class & College Access: Achieving Diversity in a Shifting Legal Landscape." It was written by Lorelle L. Espinosa, assistant vice president at ACE's Center for Policy Research and Strategy; Matthew N. Gaertner, a senior research scientist with the educational publisher Pearson Inc.; and Gary Orfield, a professor and co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles.

A key reminder in the report is that race-conscious admissions strategies include much more than the holistic review at issue in the Fisher case, although that type of plan is used by 97 percent of the institutions in the survey that consider race.

For example, 93 percent of institutions that consider race employ targeted recruitment and outreach activities to encourage prospective minority students to apply, the report says. Other categories that rank high in use among race-conscious institutions include targeted yield initiatives, which involve convincing those minority group members admitted to actually enroll, and recruitment of community college transfer students, among many others.

The survey shows that diversity strategies are more common and perceived as more effective at institutions where race is considered. This brings the authors "to an interesting contradiction in the argument for dismantling the use of race," they write.

"Those who support banning the consideration of race in admissions often suggest that when race is not an option, institutions will be more likely to employ more creative and less divisive measures to diversify their student bodies," the authors say. "Our data cast doubt on that argument. Among the 338 institutions in our study, those that do not consider race are also less likely to use a broad array of diversity strategies, a finding that holds across level of selectivity. "

Many of these other diversity strategies are not as controversial to opponents of race-conscious admissions as holistic review, which these opponents often view as thinly disguised racial quotas.

The report suggests there were some subtle changes after the Fisher decision in the holistic review calculus at institutions that consider race. For example, 11 percent of such institutions boosted the significance of socioeconomic disadvantage in their formulas, and 9 percent boosted the importance of international diversity, the report says. 

"Now more than ever, institutions are wise to explore all racial and ethnic diversity strategies at their disposal," the report says. "This includes steps institutions can take outside of the admissions decision-making process—like redoubling recruitment efforts—that may in fact be more appropriate and effective responses to Fisher."

A daylong conference on the report was scheduled for Tuesday, July 21, at the ACE's offices in Washington.

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