‘Holistic’ admissions may struggle to blunt Supreme Court fallout

Experts raise concern that US applicants will be forced to spin ‘sob stories’ about overcoming discrimination

July 5, 2023
Source: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

The Supreme Court ban on race-conscious university admissions in the US will force applicants to spin “sob stories” about how they have overcome discrimination, but such workarounds are unlikely to be enough to prevent efforts to widen access going into reverse, experts have warned.

Last week’s landmark ruling against affirmative action – stating that Harvard University and the University of North Carolina violated the US constitution in their efforts to diversify their classrooms – left the door open for universities to consider “an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise”, as long as they do so on an individual basis.

“A benefit to a student who overcame racial discrimination, for example, must be tied to that student’s courage and determination,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in the court’s majority opinion.

This grey area – highlighted by Joe Biden in the White House’s response to the ruling – is likely to be used by universities to further race diversity, with applicants encouraged to highlight how racial trauma might have affected their education, explained Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

“You can write about how racism affected you personally and how you overcame it, and how this shows ‘character’ – in other words, you’ll need a sob story,” said Professor Carnevale, an education adviser to three US presidents.

“As someone who won scholarships because I had supposedly shown ‘character’ and overcame adversity, I know what this does to you – it makes you hate the people who are forcing you to say these things,” he continued. “It makes you say how awful your teachers, school or community were – it creates deep resentment, even if you win a scholarship.”

Art Coleman, who led the development of the US Department of Education’s policies on race-conscious financial aid when he was deputy assistant secretary in the 1990s, said the ruling might lead to “more intentionality” regarding consideration of race-based trauma but that this kind of “holistic” assessment was already commonplace.

“It’s already happening – it’s not just evaluation of disadvantage but what will the applicant bring to the table so you are creating a diverse classroom,” said Mr Coleman, managing director of the consultancy Education Counsel.

However, Lisa García Bedolla, professor of education at the University of California, Berkeley – where affirmative action in college admissions was banned in 1996 – said its diversity essays did not push applicants to dwell on grievances over their positive attributes.

“We don’t privilege the negative, and do not encourage students to focus on their hardships – authenticity is the most important thing,” said Professor García Bedolla. “What matters for the essay is that the applicant provides a compelling narrative about themselves, their experiences and their goals.”

Berkeley uses high school and neighbourhood data to give an indication of “socioeconomic context and likely experiences with violence”, she added. “The applicant does not need to tell us that,” said Professor García Bedolla, an educational inequality researcher.

The use of such “holistic practices” nationally was unlikely to overcome the expected drop in racial diversity in top US universities after the Supreme Court ruling, said Dan Hirschman, assistant professor of sociology at Cornell University, whose research has focused on race and merit in undergraduate admissions.

“The University of California system, like other highly competitive public schools in states with bans on the consideration of race, experienced a pretty steep drop in the enrolments of black and Latino students relative to what they were able to achieve with affirmative action,” said Dr Hirschman, who pointed to a recent study showing that improvement using holistic review was 7 per cent, compared with 20 per cent under the old affirmative-action approach.

“If the country follows the trajectory of the University of California and the University of Michigan after bans in those states, then we are looking at a significant increase in overall racial inequality,” he added.

“That’s on top of the increases in racial inequality experienced in the last 20 years – in some ways, educational segregation has gotten worse. Affirmative action in college admissions clearly didn’t solve racial inequality in education in the US, but ending it will exacerbate the already massive problem.”

Holistic practices focused on class-based admissions had the potential to “claw back some of the [diversity] lost” but would not reverse the impact of the court’s ruling, said Professor Carnevale.

“This judgment will enormously affect universities but also American politics – race-based admissions has been a Band-Aid since the 1960s to cover a much bigger problem: racism in America. Now the Band-Aid has been ripped off and the wound is gushing,” he said.



Print headline: Experts fear effects of US affirmative action ban 

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Reader's comments (4)

There is a very practical workaround with means-testing as well as very local (neighborhood) geographic targeting. I am hoping that some of these are in the works already.
Yes, agree with Politics above, the issue isn't race or skin colour, it is economic deprivation. There are poor Whites, as well as some wealthy BAME people. We should be targetting assistance al all less-well-off people.
The US is obsessed by race. The real barrier to getting into university is a sub-standard education that doesn't equip the student to compete on a level basis with more fortunate applicants and - as others have already commented - this is more usually due to economic deprivation. The answer to that is funding a foundation year to get students up to speed, not just dumping them into the standard 4-year degree when they are not ready for it. Do that and you are setting them up to fail. Note that affirmative action admissions programmes are judged on how many students with certain characteristics are admitted, not how many of them graduate!
m.robertson is correct, the US is obsessed with race, though not how politicians use race to win elections. Though, there may be hope that might change, as some have realised to get on in life one needs the opportunities of a good education right from the start: Mesha Mainor, a Democrat Georgia House Rep from District 56 (Atlanta), has left the party and become Republican. One of the chief issues she has championed from the start is school choice. Such a thing is considered heresy within the Democratic Party.