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Stop Cooling Out the Next Generation’s Aspirations

Dr. Julie-Posselt

That animals avoid environments which seem unhealthy due to predators or poor conditions is a well-documented ecological phenomenon. Humans are no different. We, too, instinctively avoid environments that look unhealthy or unwelcoming.

It is therefore time to connect the dots among efforts to dismantle diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) activities, overturn race-conscious admissions, and bring back standardized tests. These trends are connected in their overtly political origins and in the chilling effect they may create. Universities risk undermining diversity by signaling unwelcoming conditions for the same populations who, for centuries, were formally excluded. By being proactive with admissions, recruitment, and advising, however, we can reduce this risk.Dr. Julie PosseltDr. Julie Posselt

Admissions systems captivate the public because they represent possibility and gateways to status, because they are somewhat opaque, and because unfairness in what we can see often violates deeply rooted values and supports our cynical thoughts. People pointed to the Operation Varsity Blues admissions scandal and said, “See? Elite institutions are corrupt, and the rich are manipulating it.” Similarly, talented students of color have seen MIT reinstate standardized test requirements in the same year that affirmative action was prohibited and said, “See? They don’t really care about diversity. It’s not worth it for me to apply.”

There is much to learn from states that have been subject to bans on affirmative action. Research suggests that we send cues affecting underrepresented students’ aspirations, application, and enrollment decisions through three channels: public policies, admissions requirements, and recruitment and advising interactions.

What happens after affirmative action bans?

When law prohibits race-conscious admissions, prospective students from minoritized backgrounds may question whether applying to highly selective institutions is worth the cost, effort, or emotional investment. The University of California learned after Proposition 209 how this can lead to group-level declines in application rates from Black and Latinx students.

Application rates ripple to enrollment rates, and those impact the decisions of cohorts that follow. Dr. Kelly Slay studied Black students’ decisions about whether or not to apply and enroll at the University of Michigan after Proposal 2, which also banned affirmative action. She found a majority of research participants worried about the small Black student population and “perceived some level of potential threat (e.g., discrimination and racism) associated with their racial identity.” Similar sentiments nationally following the SCOTUS cases have put the potential benefits of HBCU’s in the spotlight. At the graduate level, Dr. Tim McEldowney found racially minoritized students more frequently cite the presence of peers and advisors who share their race/ethnicity as a critical factor in where they will apply.

Admissions requirements matter

Among admissions requirements, none appear to deter prospective students like standardized tests. One study found that adding standardized test requirements to admissions criteria for graduate programs was associated with a 44% decline in the pool of Black applicants.

It is sometimes claimed – as in David Leonhardt’s recent column— that eliminating standardized tests will “harm vulnerable people.” There is little evidence to support this position, in his column and more broadly. Rather, a recent study found no evidence that standardized test scores helped students from less-resourced schools stand out or increase their chances of admission. Instead, as early as third grade, high-stakes tests can lead high-achieving students in high-poverty schools to question their competence.

These issues are not just about race. In a sample of 515 math majors across the country, women were more likely to report that GRE requirements deter them from applying to graduate mathematics programs.

Recruitment cues

Admissions and recruitment go hand in hand. My research team recently found that an integrated strategy was therefore essential to STEM graduate programs protecting student diversity in states with affirmative action bans. Recruitment involved more than competitive financial aid packages, glossy brochures, and the shine of rankings. It involved sending culturally-attuned cues about intellectual and social belonging through formal and informal communications, connecting prospective applicants with current students and professors, and countering widespread stereotypes about chilly climates in STEM.  

New findings also highlight the importance of authenticity with prospective students: My colleagues and I found that prospective students viewed honesty about both efforts to create a welcoming environment and the challenges faced in doing so as more trustworthy than offering an overly rosy picture.

Students can be “cooled out” of higher education, but they can also be “warmed up.” This is an important time to be proactive, through steps like the following:

1. Take care with formal and informal advice-giving and mentoring. We ought to affirm individuals who may be questioning their potential or belonging due to the political climate or the mixed messages policy sends. 

2. Protect faculty governance in colleges and universities. Threats to diversity are not limited to higher education, but there is a special need for higher education institutions to buffer decision making from the influence of those who seek to use higher education as a political wedge.

3. Don’t give up on creating more equitable selection systems. Apart from directly considering race, there remains much we can do to increase diversity. The selection systems we design, and the presence of other students, faculty, and leaders who share historically underrepresented backgrounds send strong cues.

4. Remember that cooling out leaders from underrepresented backgrounds sends cues, too. Women and people of color considering leadership roles balance threats to their wellbeing with the desire to embody and drive positive change. In her resignation letter from Harvard, Dr. Claudine Gay wrote, “When I became president, I considered myself particularly blessed by the opportunity to serve people from around the world who saw in my presidency a vision for Harvard that affirmed their sense of belonging – their sense that Harvard welcomes people of talent and promise, from every background imaginable.”

The conditions communicated by the student population, admissions requirements, recruitment efforts, and who inhabits symbolic leadership roles combine to create a sense of the environment. It is up to us to communicate welcoming conditions.

 Dr. Julie Posselt is a professor of higher education in the Rossier School of Education, executive director of the USC Center for Enrollment Research Policy and Practice, associate dean in the USC Graduate School, and president of the Sociology of Education Association. 

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