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2022 Supreme court affirmative action case won’t affect most colleges

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College admissions experts want to let students and their families in on a little secret: It’s not really a prospective student’s fault when they are turned away from an Ivy League institution or similar college that rejects most applicants. 

And race matters far less than they may think. 

Most people – Black, white, Latino and Asian Americans included – who apply to Harvard, Stanford or Princeton are rejected. The story is the same at dozens of other selective schools in the country, while the remaining thousands of institutions of higher learning are likely to accept almost everyone who applies

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Of the more than 1,000 institutions that use the Common Application, for instance, just 70 admit fewer than 25 percent of their applicants, CEO Jenny Rickard said. 

At those few colleges, “it’s not about you,” Rickard said. ‘It’s not about your race. It’s not about your gender. It’s actually about the pool of applications and institutional priorities.”   

University of Michigan students protest at the start of efforts in 2003 to ban the use of affirmative action.

Some public institutions, including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, cap the number of out-of-state residents allowed to attend. Colleges looking to grow their undergraduate student body may opt to enroll students they hadn’t in years past. And universities are likely to alter their admissions practices as the pool of traditional college students continues to shrink.

But it’s the recruitment practices of America’s top universities that will be thrust into the national consciousness as the Supreme Court weighs the constitutionality of considering race in college admissions in two cases involving Harvard and UNC. Observers in the college admissions space fear the court’s conservative majority will strike down affirmative action, setting back efforts to diversify the nation’s elite colleges. 

Columbia University President Lee Bollinger is one of the many university officials raising the alarm. He was the president of the University of Michigan when Barbara Grutter, who is white, accused the public institution of denying her entrance to the university’s law school based on her race more than 20 years ago. The Supreme Court ultimately took up that case, Grutter v. Bollinger, in 2003, and ruled the university could consider race in limited circumstances.

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Justice Sandra Day O’ Connor wrote in her decision that within 25 years affirmative action would no longer be needed. Justice Clarence Thomas agreed, but said if a practice 25 years in the future would be unconstitutional, it would also be unconstitutional at the time.

In a call with reporters Thursday, Bollinger said he appreciated O’Connor’s decision overall, but disagreed that the need for considering race in admissions would wind down within a quarter of a century. 

Should the court reverse the decision, he said, it would impact the ability of underrepresented students to secure access in more selective colleges. It will take generations, not merely 25 years, he said, to provide the same opportunities to students of color that many white students already have. 

“It would put us into a new era in which we would fall back on society’s efforts to address issues of racial injustice that are part of our history,” Bollinger said.

Do all colleges use race in admissions? 

Most universities can’t afford to be as picky as the nation’s elite colleges. In fact, most universities accept a large majority of the students who apply. A 2019 Pew Research Center analysis of more than 1,300 four-year colleges found more than half of the schools sampled accepted 2/3 or more of their applicants.

The Supreme Court began its new term this month, and will hear cases addressing a number of issues, including the use of affirmative action in college admissions. (Stefani Reynolds / AFP)

That isn’t to say that barring race from being considered in admissions won’t affect these universities or how they operate. In its arguments, Harvard cited surveys that found about 40% of universities consider race to some degree, though that rate is at 60% for institutions that accept about 40% or less of their applicants. 

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And several organizations, including some that represent colleges, have filed briefs in support of the continued use of race in the admissions process. Advocates for considering race in admissions, Bollinger included, mention the challenges for public institutions in states where considering race is banned – including California and Michigan – in building a diverse class. In all, nine states already prohibit the use of race-conscious admissions. 

However, most college admissions staff don’t need to consider the race of most applicants. Community colleges, for example, serve millions of undergraduates, and most have minimal admissions requirements. Typically, students need only prove they graduated from high school or have earned a similar credential.

In fact most Americans with a high school diploma are almost certain to find a college that will accept them. Most universities, especially those reliant on tuition-paying students to stay afloat, are trying to retain and grow their undergraduate classes. The National Association for College Admission Counseling, a trade group of professionals working in college admissions, maintains a running list of universities, public and private, with open slots on their campuses. 

Abigail Fisher, right, walks outside the Supreme Court in Washington in October 2012.  Fisher sued the University of Texas, claiming she was denied admission in 2008 because of her race. The Supreme Court  sent the case on race-based college admissions back to a lower court for another look.

Competition between universities for undergraduate students is also expected to increase in the near future as the pool of traditional college age students continues to decline. What’s more, college enrollment has been falling for years, and the pandemic exacerbated some of the declines in the nation’s undergraduate population. The National Student Clearinghouse earlier this month reported college enrollment was down by nearly 4% since 2020.  

The bigger challenge for students may be finding colleges they can afford and align with their interests. Proximity to universities, too, is likely to be a factor.   

How do college acceptance rates vary campus to campus? 

It’s not just community colleges with open-access campuses that accept the large majority of students who apply. Many four-year universities, and sometimes a state’s public flagship institution, may accept most students who apply, though a fraction do turn away more than half of their applicants. The University of California, Los Angeles, for example, accepts only 14% of applicants, while the University of New Mexico accepts 98% of people who apply, according to federal government data.  

College selectivity may vary even among institutions near one another. For example, the University of North Carolina accepts just about a quarter of applicants while the University of South Carolina accepts about 70% of applicants. Schools dedicated to the sciences, technology and engineering also tend to have a lower acceptance rate compared with other public institutions. 

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Nikki Kahealani Chun is the vice provost of enrollment at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, the state’s public flagship, and previously served as the admissions director at the private California Institute of Technology. The latter has an acceptance rate of 7%. At the university where she works now, 84% of applicants are accepted.

Chun described the admissions process as a conversation between the student and the institution. She said much of the frustration stems from the fact that students only get to hear the end result of that conversation – whether they got into their preferred college. 

“I also tell students, they have no clue how we agonized over, especially in places that are more selective, the literal limitations of spaces and offerings,” Chun said. 

A tour group walks through the Harvard campus in 2012. A federal judge's ruling on its use of race in admissions is before the Supreme Court.

Public universities’ mission, often, is to educate their populace, which helps explain why some are more accepting than private institutions, Chun said.  

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She added that acceptance rates can fluctuate based on the university’s needs and cautioned against using those figures as a proxy for a university’s value. When colleges expand or contract their undergraduate classes, their acceptance rates change as well. Outside factors, like natural disasters, can also affect how many and what types of students it accepts. 

Families seeking private universities also can choose from many colleges that accept half or more of their applicants. Though they generally carry a higher price tag – itself is a type of sorting mechanism – many adjust how much they charge based on the wealth of individual students and their families. 

But wait, how do elite colleges use affirmative action? 

At the moment, some colleges can consider race if their goal is to create a diverse class. The thinking goes that students who interact with people from different backgrounds will get more out of their education. A person’s racial background, however, is but one tool universities use to try to build a diverse class.

“Race is one of many factors that is used to help provide some of the context that generations of applicants have been just sort of systematically excluded in our society from opportunity,” Rickard said. 

Students may be considered diverse based on how much their families earn, their home state or country, or even what sport they play. And race alone doesn’t guarantee a student a spot on campus. A person’s racial background can serve as an edge among similarly qualified applicants.

Whitney Soule, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, said her Ivy League institution relies on “holistic” review, which means they track not only the student’s academics and goals, but also their, “ability to use their own experiences to support others, pursue tough questions, and connect what they see and learn from different various experiences.”

“Race and ethnicity, among many other aspects of a person’s identity, influence the experiences and relationships in our lives,” Soule said. “Therefore, race is relevant and embedded in creating an environment for learning that advances solutions for the world in which our students will work and lead.” 

The university receives tens of thousands of applications, and Soule said administrators try to build an undergraduate class of about 2,400. Admissions staff consider how students will spend their time on campus both in the classroom and use information from their application to “imagine the students in Penn classrooms, campus housing, student clubs, research labs, and so forth, because we know that’s where they’ll spend most of their time.”

What are legacy admissions? And how do colleges use them? 

Some applicants can game the university application process through different avenues. Students who are willing to commit to a school early, for example, are often accepted at higher rates than those who wait. 

Guixue Zhou of North Potomac, Maryland., left, and others protests against racial quotas outside the Supreme Court in 2015, as the court heard oral arguments in the Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin case.

What’s more, some institutions may give an edge to applicants whose family members previously attended the college, a practice is known as legacy admissions. The once common measure has fallen out of favor as critics say it unfairly favors the wealthy.

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Education Reform Now, a non-partisan think tank focused on education, found in a recent paper that 100 universities have dropped the use of legacy admissions since 2015, including public institutions like the universities of Florida and Connecticut, but also several highly selective colleges, including Amherst College in Massachusetts and Pomona College in California. 

The paper found about half of the 2,000-plus universities that participate in a survey known as the Common Data set considered an applicant’s relationship to alumni. It found four in five of the most selective universities – a set of 64 that accept less than 25% of applicants – gave an advantage in the admissions process to the children of alumni. Like race in admissions, being a legacy isn’t enough to guarantee entry alone. Rather it’s a similar tip for qualified candidates. 

“Legacy is one more way the deck is stacked against even the most talented students of color and first-generation students applying to elite universities, since most legacies are white, and all of them have parents with at least a bachelor’s degree,” the report stated. “More than two-thirds of Latino, Native, and Black college students, however, were first-generation students in 2015.”  

The report also said it would be even more pressing to reexamine the practice should the nation’s high court strike down affirmative action.

Contact Chris Quintana at (202) 308-9021 or cquintana@usatoday.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CQuintanadc

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