How the End of Affirmative Action Will Change College Admissions

Jeffrey J. Selingo is a FutureEd senior fellow. This piece originally ran in The Wall Street Journal.

College admissions is a data-driven industry. In the year I spent embedded in three admissions offices for my book on the selection process, enrollment deans constantly tracked how well they were doing in fulfilling their priorities for an incoming class. In any given year, that might mean a wider geographic reach, higher GPAs, more full payers and, in many cases, greater racial and ethnic diversity. At selective colleges, where seats are limited and applications plentiful, admissions deans make a variety of trade-offs as they craft a class—this many low-income students but that many legacies, or this average SAT score but that much diversity.

Much of this “shaping of the class”—as those in the admissions profession call it—happens in the final stages of the selection process in early March. This is the dividing line in the process between what many see as fair and unfair, between a selection based on some measure of traditional criteria, such as high-school courses and grades, and one based on a variety of other factors: money, gender, intended major and an applicant’s race.

As John Latting, the dean of admission at Emory University, told his staff at the kickoff of the shaping process when I was there in 2019, “the best class for Emory is a diverse class; if you don’t seek that and don’t defend that at this stage, it’s not going to happen.” During the days I witnessed the shaping process at Emory and elsewhere, applicants on either side of the acceptance line were pushed and pulled between admit and deny as admissions officers ensured that the enrollment projections for various demographic and special interest groups were at least on par with previous years.

The evaluation process at elite colleges was never fair. Nor will it be fair now.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision ending the consideration of race as a factor in admissions will have one immediate impact: The constant tracking and massaging of the number of minority applicants will become a relic of the past. Though colleges will still report their enrollment by race and ethnicity to the U.S. Department of Education, they will be flying blind during the selection process in terms of how exactly their next class is coming together when it comes to the makeup of underrepresented students.

Opponents of affirmative action in admissions believe its demise will make for a selection process based more on merit—and ultimately fairer. What’s likelier is that admissions at top-ranked schools will become even more ambiguous and opaque than in recent years. Judging by the statements that colleges released in the hours after the Supreme Court decision, they still plan to enroll a diverse student body. The question now is how they design an evaluative process in which race can’t matter, at least explicitly.

The first workaround colleges will employ is to widen their recruitment funnel, trying to increase the number of minority students who apply. The hope is that further on in the process they will then be able to send out enough admits and get enough yeses that they can enroll a diverse class without ever considering race.

Given that most selective colleges got rid of their requirements for SAT and ACT scores during the pandemic—and then saw their application numbers skyrocket, especially from first-generation and minority students—such test-optional policies are now bound to become permanent. The lack of a testing requirement signals to students with scores that in previous years were below the college’s average that it’s OK to apply, but it also gives colleges greater freedom in shaping a class without worrying about the impact of lower student test scores on the academic metrics reported to the public and the college rankings. What’s more, when not every admitted student submits a test score, plaintiffs will lack a key piece of evidence they have used in past admissions lawsuits claiming discrimination based on race.

The background of applicants will also become more important in the evaluation process. We like to think of college admissions as the linchpin of meritocracy. But the evaluation process at elite colleges was never fair. It wasn’t fair before the Supreme Court’s 1978 decision in Bakke, which said that colleges could consider an applicant’s race as a factor in admissions, or after the 2003 Grutter decision, which again upheld the limited use of race to achieve the education benefits of diversity. Nor will it be fair now.

Because admissions standards are applied in context, they have never been applied consistently. Admissions officers judge applicants’ achievements based on the opportunities they were given. What high school courses did they take from the classes available to them? How many students in their high school go to college? What might a college expect from them once they get to campus?

Colleges will still have access to the high school profile that accompanies most transcripts and lists curricular offerings among other details, including the demographics of the school. Because the nation’s 43,000 high schools remain highly segregated by race, expect elite institutions to focus more recruiting time and resources on high schools with large proportions of students of color.

The University of Virginia, for instance, announced last month a plan to target 40 high schools in the state that have sent few applications to the flagship campus. While studies show that colleges typically visit white, wealthier high schools, they also find that students—particularly first-generation students—are heavily influenced by colleges that recruited at their high school and are more likely to apply and enroll.

When colleges knew they could use race as a factor in the evaluation process, they spent less effort themselves on filling the top of the recruitment funnel with minority students. Elite colleges, in particular, partly outsourced the job of finding smart low-income and first-generation students by partnering with national organizations like QuestBridge and the Posse Foundation that essentially acted as talent scouts for elite colleges.

Now these colleges will likely adopt the recruiting approaches of well-known public colleges in states that had previously banned racial preferences in admissions, including California, Michigan and Washington. In those states, the public flagships have developed extensive high-school counseling and academic outreach efforts aimed at low-income communities and precollege programs designed for students who are first in their family to go to college. (Although in amicus briefs filed in the most recent Supreme Court affirmative action cases, the universities of both California and Michigan said their efforts have fallen short in admitting and enrolling underrepresented minority students.)

In the Supreme Court’s majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts offered a clue to how colleges could better understand an applicant’s lived experience. “Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration or otherwise,” he wrote. That sentence sparked plenty of discussion among admissions officers and high school counselors about how the essay or other application prompts might be used to ascertain a student’s race and ethnicity.

Roberts warned colleges not to consider the essay or other questions they might ask on the application to be an end run around the consideration of race. “Universities,” he wrote, “may not simply establish through applicant essays or other means [what] we hold unlawful today.” But elite colleges are unlikely to be deterred. They will figure out new ways to give their incoming classes the shape they want.