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NADOHE Presentation Maps Affirmative Action Aftermath

Art Coleman, co-founder of EducationCounsel LLCArt Coleman, co-founder of EducationCounsel LLCThe Supreme Court’s June ruling ending race-conscious admissions practices left vast patches of uncertainty in its wake. It was very clear what was not allowed—giving applicants a benefit because of their race or ethnicity—but it was less certain how far the decision extended. In what ways could a college incorporate an applicant’s background into their decision-making if he or she disclosed it? Did the decision cover race-based scholarships? Racial preferences in hiring?

To address some of these questions, the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE), the main advocacy group for diversity administrators, put on a webinar Wednesday, featuring Art Coleman. Coleman is a co-founder of EducationCounsel LLC, which provides strategic guidance to institutions of higher education, who has a focus on access and diversity. The presentation was moderated by Caroline Laguerre-Brown, vice provost for diversity, equity and community engagement at George Washington University.

Coleman took attendees through a typical admissions process under the new regime. Although applicants can no longer receive a boost in the admissions process due to their race or ethnicity, institutions do not have to ignore applicants’ backgrounds. Instead, admissions officers can consider applicants’ personal traits, experiences, skills, and knowledge that might be connected to their race or ethnicity, in light of what they could contribute to a campus.

Coleman described this as an “exceptionally fine but important line,” and cited application essays and interviews as particularly important avenues for this information. He added that nothing prevents schools from collecting data about applicants’ backgrounds, but, for schools with rolling admissions policies, he advised that decision-makers be kept carefully insulated from information about the racial trends among the growing class. Coleman said that institutions should also avoid a categorical focus on an applicant’s race as they make decisions to “shape the class,” and that schools should consider race-neutral DEI factors in this process.

The presentation also covered the use of race in awarding scholarships, which was not explicitly mentioned in Chief Justice John Roberts’ majority opinion. Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), the group that brought the cases to the Supreme Court, has rushed to fill this void. In July, SFFA sent a letter to 150 colleges and universities saying that race-based scholarships were illegal and advising institutions against keeping them. Shortly after the SCOTUS decision, the University of Missouri dropped the scholarships on the order of the state attorney general, and the president of the University of Kentucky said that the school interpreted the ruling as eliminating race-based aid.

Coleman said that continuing to offer scholarships tied to race is risky. Although he acknowledged that financial aid is in some ways different from admissions—it may be less of a “zero-sum game,” for example, —there still remains the problem of establishing the institution’s compelling interest in tying scholarships to race. The previous prevailing compelling interest, the academic benefits that flow from a diverse campus, had been “eviscerated,” according to Coleman.

Instead, Coleman argued, institutions should focus on racially neutral factors when awarding scholarships. These could include skills, knowledge, and character qualities that are associated with race, but not race itself.

“It’s prudent to design models that build off of what the chief justice said that you can do in admissions,” said Coleman.

However, privately endowed scholarships come with a possible workaround. In a process known as pooling and matching, aid intended for a specific group, say Hispanic students, can be put together with aid that is open to anyone but that shares some common criteria, say, a certain grade-point average. Then, a group of all of the students who qualify for the aid based on their GPA can be assembled. When the aid is handed out, administrators can make sure that a Hispanic student gets the aid that was intended for that group.

“It’s a way to legitimately honor donor intent, but that is technically race-blind,” said Coleman.

Coleman was generally more optimistic about the fate of outreach and recruitment efforts, as well as pathways programs, which try to widen the pipeline of racially diverse applicants to a university, often with on-campus experiences during the high school years.

“There are a thousand degrees more latitude,” he said, describing them as “an area of potential high impact, one I would be looking hard at.”

With these sorts of initiatives, race can be directly considered in program design—there is nothing to stop a college from devoting more energy to recruiting from majority-minority high schools, or offering a pathways program at one, for example.

“For broad-based recruitment, outreach, and pathways programs, in which you’re not conferring an individual benefit on a particular student based on race, but making strategic decisions about investments, where you’re sending staff, there is a broad recognition by the federal courts that those programs don’t even trigger review under non-discrimination standards,” he said.

Coleman advised that colleges stick to “inclusive programs” such as these but warned that programs that give specific benefits to students might draw strict scrutiny from the courts if tied to race. He again suggested using race-neutral criteria, perhaps tied to experience, for these sorts of initiatives.

Although Coleman acknowledged that the Supreme Court’s ruling was a blow to diversity efforts, he maintained his positivity about the possibilities that remain.

“Let’s get creative, let’s look broadly,” he said. “There are 1,001 things that we can be doing.”

Jon Edelman can be reached at [email protected]

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