Supreme Court notwithstanding, US universities must still collect race data

The ban on race-conscious admissions does not override the need to monitor progress in equity and social mobility, says W. Carson Byrd

七月 13, 2023
A black woman and a white man examine data charts
Source: iStock

The US Supreme Court’s ban on race-conscious college admissions has raised many questions about what is and is not still permitted with regard to race and ethnicity data.

What is clear is that admissions staff cannot use what boxes a student checks for their race and/or ethnicity to decide whether they should be admitted. But it is important to note that such box-checking is not how holistic admissions approaches work anyway; admissions staff consider a multitude of information about an applicant’s educational and life experiences, and research finds that the racial or ethnic identity of an applicant is not a determining factor in such approaches. Moreover, the Supreme Court decisions affirm that admissions staff can still consider the impact of racism on a student’s life and that students may embrace their racial or ethnic identities and communities through essay responses.

Many people are focusing on where all this leaves admissions reviews policies and practices, as well as how other diversity, equity and inclusion efforts might be affected. One area of concern undergirds many everyday operations of higher education institutions: data collection, analysis and communication. Specifically, we have to engage with what the Supreme Court decisions mean for using data on racial and ethnic diversity among applicants and students.

Colleges and universities are exploring, with some success, quantifying and ranking the adversity students face prior to college. For example, the University of California, Davis medical school considers the socioeconomic adversity in applicants’ lives. And research has found that providing admissions professionals with contextual information about applicants’ homes, schools and communities can improve their reviews of applicants.

The concern, however, is what might be missed by quantifying and ranking “adversity”. After all, the circumstances of a person’s life are not neatly and clearly quantified. Moreover, this socio-economically focused approach elides conversations about how racism and classism intertwine to differentially shape people’s lives, missing the nuances of data and lived experiences that are important for equity efforts. Work by Julie J. Park, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce and others notes that socioeconomic approaches to admissions that are not race-conscious end up undercutting the goals of cultivating both racially and socio-economically diverse student bodies.

A prominent question is whether institutions can still collect information on race and ethnicity of applicants in order to monitor trends in applications and admissions and to assess how outreach efforts might be shaping this. The answer is that they can – and they should. The Common Application (Common App) has already said it will not share such information if institutions choose not to receive it, but monitoring these trends is integral to understanding equity issues. Simply ignoring such data will only exacerbate equity issues behind a thin veil of wilful ignorance.

Another question is whether the Supreme Court decisions might have an impact beyond admissions. While Chief Justice Roberts’ majority opinion is specifically about admissions reviews, we can easily extrapolate how such arguments could be used to strike down other campus diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. As my research on quantitative metrics for diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education describes, past Supreme Court decisions have already limited the arguments and data used by higher education institutions to assess “meaningful representation” or a “critical mass” of racial and ethnic diversity on campus – because any specific numbers are viewed as unfair “racial balancing”. On the other hand, not providing such hard numbers is viewed as too opaque.

Lastly, there is a concern that race and ethnicity data will be misused or weaponised to further challenge institutions’ admissions policies and practices and their broader diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. While calling attention to the hamstringing of institutions’ ability to use data to assess and justify policies and programmes, Justice Sotomayor, in her dissenting opinion, describes the concerning misuse of demographic data in Roberts’ opinion that decontextualises the processes and outcomes that are central to understanding inequities and inequalities in higher education.

Sotomayor states: “The [court] majority does not dispute that it has handpicked data from a truncated period, ignoring the broader context of that data and what the data reflect. Instead, the majority insists that its selected data prove that Harvard’s ‘precise racial preferences‘ ‘operate like clockwork’...The Court’s conclusion that such racial preferences must be responsible for an ‘unyielding demographic composition of [the] class’…misunderstands basic principles of statistics.”

Put another way, the majority of Supreme Court justices cherrypicked the numbers to misconstrue the reality of how both Harvard’s and the University of North Carolina’s admissions policies and practices worked to cultivate a diverse cohort of students in pursuit of the educational benefits of diversity that the court supported for more than 40 years. But if the justices can cherrypick in this instance, what is to stop them doing so again if other diversity, equity and inclusion policies are challenged?

The Supreme Court’s decisions will only result in more confusion about how college admissions reviews operate in the coming years. Confusion is also likely to increase about how race and ethnicity data is collected and used to understand equity issues in admissions and beyond. In response, colleges and universities must engage in conversations about these issues and work harder to communicate such data across campus and to the public.

Such communication is vital to educate the broader community about the progress in equity and social mobility that higher education institutions are striving to provide.

Carson Byrd is an associate research scientist in the Center for the Study of Higher & Postsecondary Education at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Behind the Diversity Numbers: Achieving Racial Equity on Campus.



  • 注册是免费的,而且十分便捷
  • 注册成功后,您每月可免费阅读3篇文章
  • 订阅我们的邮件
Please 登录 or 注册 to read this article.