Most higher education institutions promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as core values attached to their institutional mission, because doing so is crucial for ensuring a welcoming and inclusive campus environment for all students, faculty, and staff. Best practice recommends that DEI senior officers answer directly to a university or college’s president, thereby ensuring that DEI concerns have representation and an enduring voice in leadership matters. Schools’ DEI officers design and implement strategies to promote diversity and inclusion, address issues of bias and discrimination, and develop policies and practices that promote equity and fairness on campus. Some schools pair DEI initiatives with Title IX initiatives (Title IX assures gender equity on college campuses) and antidiscrimination human resources procedures related to disability, age, pay, gender, and hiring practices.
DEI initiatives promote social justice as a value that is actionable; decisions are made and actions taken to remodel institutional infrastructure so that it aligns with improving all students’ well-being, safety, access to opportunity, and rights to an education for an increasingly diverse student population. DEI also promotes cultural diversity via campus activities such as multicultural events, celebrations, and programs built with diversity and inclusion at their core.
However, as of June 30, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a suit brought against Harvard and the University of North Carolina in which an organization named Students for Fair Admissions alleged that both universities discriminated against Asian Americans, a minority group that is largely represented in higher education. The Supreme Court decided that higher education must not consider race in the admissions process. Let us look for a moment at the history of this workplace and educational equity issue.
In the early 1960s, the civil rights movement advocated for equal rights and opportunities for marginalized groups, particularly African Americans. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 10925, which introduced the concept of affirmative action in the workforce. This order required government contractors to ensure that individuals were employed without regard to their race, color, religion, or national origin. It aimed to promote equal opportunity and to address discrimination in the workplace.
This executive order laid the foundation for future affirmative action policies, taking steps to eliminate discriminatory practices and promote equal employment opportunities. Since 1961, higher education policies and practices have aimed to increase access and opportunities for underrepresented groups in admissions. Colleges and universities began to examine demographic deterrents to education and opportunity, turning them into favorable factors in the admissions process to promote diversity and address historical inequality. By considering an applicant’s background, universities can acknowledge and address the systemic barriers and disadvantages certain racial and ethnic groups face, ultimately striving for a more equitable education system.
In the 2016 Supreme Court case Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the affirmative action policy of the university was challenged. The court ultimately ruled in favor of the university, affirming the constitutionality of its admissions process. The case highlighted the positive impact of affirmative action on promoting diversity and educational benefits. The University of Texas argued that considering race to create a diverse student body enriched the learning environment. The school presented evidence that its affirmative action policy had contributed to increased minority enrollment and improved campus climate.
Until recently, diversity in higher education was a compelling state interest, recognizing the educational benefits of a diverse student body, including improved critical thinking, cross-cultural understanding, and preparing students to excel in a diverse workforce. However, nine states already had laws or referendums barring affirmative action at public universities.
Today, it’s federal law, which applies everywhere.
Now what? Many newspapers are already citing statements released by major institutions of higher education, such as Harvard, that establish the unflinching value of diversity in higher education. Harvard’s senior officers and deans signed this decree, “We . . . reaffirm the fundamental principle that deep and transformative teaching, learning, and research depend upon a community comprising people of many backgrounds, perspectives, and lived experiences.” Moving forward, Harvard will still “preserve, consistent with the Court’s new precedent, our essential values” for diversity and equity. Meanwhile, The New Yorker magazine contextualizes this ruling as cause for a proper obituary for affirmative action, with the caveat that the health of affirmative action had been in decline for years.
The law will begin to play itself out with next year’s college and graduate program applicants, beginning with early decision candidates this fall. Multiple news sources anticipate that admissions committees will adapt to this ruling by asking applicants to share their or their family’s stories related to challenges and disadvantages. In doing so, stories of poverty, hardship, immigrant struggles or triumphs, and first-generation challenges or achievements would likely provide an important pathway toward preserving a value for diversity in higher education. Accepted’s founder Linda Abraham weighed in on Poets&Quants, saying, “Admissions offices still value diversity, equity and inclusion, and admissions offices for years have maintained that diversity doesn’t exclusively mean race and ethnicity. Instead of relying on a box ticked with a specific race or ethnicity, adcoms will seek the qualities and experiences that contribute to diversity and inclusiveness. They will still strive to create the rich and diverse learning environment that they value.” She then added, “Business schools have been preparing for the possibility that race-based affirmative action will be struck down by SCOTUS. They have prepared by asking questions that don’t ask about race but do ask about the attributes and character strength that come from overcoming challenges, prejudice, and/or hardship or about experiences contributing to or creating an inclusive environment.”
In 1996, when California banned affirmative action in higher education, the state’s public universities initially felt the backlash of prohibitive access to education among students of color, which might just serve as a litmus test for what’s to come nationally. In time, California was able to reacclimate and improve the enrollment of minority students once again.
It is likely that the Supreme Court ruling will ripple notably and adversely through the admissions processes at the more competitive colleges, universities, and elite private schools, triggering a backsliding to a time when access to superior education was based on unimpeded legacy or meritocracy – both of which bolster institutional bias that privilege white privilege – reestablishing institutional barriers that undermine social justice, which is what Harvard is trying to stand against. For now, we will wait and see whether schools adjust their essay questions, parts of their application, or even the interview. Stay tuned to the Accepted blog as we bring you our advice during these changing times in the world of admissions.
Higher education accreditors, including the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the Higher Learning Commission, and the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, have standards related to diversity and inclusion that institutions must meet to maintain their accreditation. Consequently, a majority of private colleges now elect to keep in step with state legislation that requires DEI initiatives at institutions of higher learning. Additionally, DEI policies that help colleges create a more inclusive and equitable environment can lead to better outcomes for all students, including increased retention rates, higher graduation rates, and improved academic performance.
DEI does not change affirmative action legislation, which no longer allows race to be a component in college admissions decisions.
Dr. Mary Mahoney, PhD, is the medical humanities director at Elmira College and has more than 20 years of experience as an advisor and essay reviewer for med school applicants. She is a tenured English professor with an MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College and a PhD in literature and writing from the University of Houston. For the past 20 years, Mary has served as a grad school advisor and essay reviewer for med school applicants. Want Mary to help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch!
What SCOTUS Decision on Affirmative Action Means for Applicants [BONUS Podcast Episode] – July 13, 2023
In this bonus Admissions Straight Talk podcast episode, Linda Abraham, founder of Accepted, discusses what applicants should make of the recent SCOTUS decision to reverse affirmative action.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court issued two decisions that have essentially ended race-conscious admissions decisions. I’ve decided to provide a brief bonus episode to discuss implications for graduate school applicants and what applicants should do in response to these decisions.
I’m not going to praise or condemn the Supreme Court’s decision. I’m just going to give my advice based on 25 years, almost 30 years as an admissions consultant, regarding the decisions, implications for applicants, and therefore how applicants should respond. Keep in mind that I have interviewed probably hundreds of admissions directors at this point, both through Admissions Straight Talk and through our old text-only chats in the 2000s. So I feel qualified to give this advice and share my opinion.
I hope I’m not going to shock too many people here, but I realize I’m in the minority. I do not believe that the Supreme Court’s recent decision is going to mean massive changes in the graduate admissions landscape.
So whether you were applauding the decision and jumping up and down for joy or despondent because you think it’s a very bad decision, I would suggest that you not be taken in by the hype and the hand-wringing.
Four reasons I think this decision won’t make a dramatic difference in admissions [1:52]
Here’s why I do not believe that the recent decisions are going to devastate diversity or really dramatically change the admissions landscape.
1. Diversity goes beyond race and ethnicity [2:00]
Admissions offices for years have said that the diversity they seek is about much more than race and ethnicity. It’s about different perspectives, varied life experiences, and a diversity of thoughts and opinions. If that is really true and has been true, then this decision should not change all that much.
2. Diversity is a high priority in graduate schools [2:22]
Graduate schools at all levels and specifically the people evaluating applications will still value diversity of ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, thought, ideas, experiences, et cetera. They feel it is a high if not the highest, priority in creating their classes and communities.
That has not changed. Nothing that happened in the Supreme Court’s decision has changed the values or the perspective of the people evaluating your application. Notice they’re going to want to stay on the right side of the law and the Supreme Court decision, but they still have their values and perspectives.
As I told the MBA admission site Poets&Quants, “Instead of relying on a box ticked with a specific race or ethnicity, ADCOM will seek the qualities and experiences that contributed to diversity and inclusiveness. They will strive to create the rich and diverse learning environment that they value.”
3. Schools have been anticipating this decision [3:26]
Schools have been preparing for this anticipated Supreme Court decision for a long time. How have they done so? They’ve added questions that elicit information designed to reflect both ethnic and socioeconomic diversity.
For example, AMCAS added this year its other impactful experiences essay. This is a little bit broader and it is less focused on ethnicity and is designed to elicit the qualities that schools value. And it asks, “Have you overcome challenges or obstacles in your life that you would like to describe in more detail? This could include lived experiences related to your family background, financial background, community setting, educational experiences, and/or other life circumstances.”
That would be a perfect opportunity for somebody to discuss how coming from an underrepresented group, facing certain cultural challenges, and being the other for any variety of reasons could make them a better doctor, more empathic, more sympathetic, perhaps a better listener, and perhaps more culturally attuned to different cultures because they have been a different culture.
Many secondary applications to medical school ask about contributions, diversity, equity, and inclusivity, or lived experiences with systemic racism and inequity. That is your opportunity to address those issues in ways that will show you have the experience to both contribute to diversity, equity, and inclusion and to add a specific dimension to your class. MBA programs, including Darden, UT McCombs, UC Berkeley, Haas, UCLA Anderson, Chicago Booth, Columbia Business School, and Wharton, have questions that encourage applicants to show the strength of character, resilience, persistence, and attributes that come from overcoming hardships and challenges. By the way, that is not limited to any specific race or ethnic group.
Law schools allow for addenda. Some specifically ask for information about challenges overcome or diversity. For example, Georgetown Law and UC Berkeley Law are among the many law schools that ask for an optional diversity statement. Many other graduate programs ask about contributions to diversity, inclusiveness, and about other information that you may want to share with the admissions committee.
4. Schools conduct holistic reviews [5:56]
Schools are committed to evaluating applications on a holistic basis. Holistic admissions means that there is no formula and no numerical weighting for acceptance. However, there are four key, and I’ve defined them very broadly, ingredients to a successful graduate school application. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.
What graduate programs are looking for [6:14]
Graduate programs are looking for four things.
The first thing is the academic ability to succeed in their program. That is simply foundational. No one wants to admit somebody who’s going to flunk out. You might struggle a little bit, but they really want you to succeed once you’re in there.
The second thing is goals that their program is well qualified to support, both while in attendance and professionally after completion of whatever degree you’re going for. So if you say you want to practice law, law school is the way to go. If you want to be a clinical physician, then medical school or osteopathic school is the way to go. If you want to be a leader in business, then the MBA is a great way to go. There are an infinite number of graduate degrees, and if you show that their program is going to help you achieve your goals and they support your goals, then that is something that they are looking for.
The third thing is fit with the program’s mission and values. Look that up when you’re starting to work on your applications for each school.
The fourth thing is desirable character traits, which almost always include leadership, teamwork, resilience, and persistence. Make sure that in different ways, in different places in your application, whether it’s application essays, the primary application, secondary applications, or supplemental essays, you’re revealing what the schools are looking for.
Advice for applicants in underrepresented groups [7:57]
My advice to any graduate school applicant, but particularly those applying from historically underrepresented groups, is to show the qualities that schools are looking for. Use the essays asking for impactful experiences, and those that ask for the non-professional and non-academic side of you to show that you have overcome obstacles, are a resilient individual and have contributed to creating inclusive communities. Show that you share the values of the people reading your application.
That isn’t just my opinion, by the way. In a recent Admissions Straight Talk interview provided before the Supreme Court announced its much-anticipated decision, Dr. Joel Maurer, assistant dean of admissions at the medical school at Michigan State University, advised applicants if on a common application, you are allowed to share personal identities as it relates to demographic information to fill it out. He was anticipating the decision that came down a few weeks after I spoke with him.
Going back to his comments, and if you also identify in a community in which you believe society has discriminated against you historically and ongoingly, figure out a way to share that if the SCOTUS decision allows you to do so. I think if you don’t, you are making a big mistake.
Furthermore, Harvard’s president, Dr. Lawrence Bacow, in his letter response to the Supreme Court decision, which was also signed by 13 Harvard deans pledged, “The Court held that Harvard College’s admissions system does not comply with the principles of the equal protection clause embodied in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. The Court also ruled that colleges and universities may consider in admissions decisions ‘an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.’ We will certainly comply with the Court’s decision.”
Some members of historically underrepresented groups may feel, as Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, which was the Harvard lawsuit, and the similar UNC decision discourages you from applying. Please, please, please don’t feel that way. Don’t be discouraged. Prepare, work hard, give it your best shot, and show that you have the academic ability and the lived experiences that will contribute to your target program’s class, community, and ultimately its reputation.
Many critics of last week’s Supreme Court decision point to the experience of the University of California after California passed Proposition 209, also known as the California Civil Rights Initiative, way back in 1996. That initiative prohibited public universities from considering race, sex, or ethnicity in admissions decisions.
There was an immediate and sharp drop in USC’s undergraduate enrollment from historically underrepresented groups when the initiative took effect.
Critics of the SCOTUS position and also of my position that this is not going to have an enormous impact, point to that example immediately. However, I looked at 2022 stats for enrollment in full-time MBA, MD, and JD programs at the University of Southern California and Stanford, both private and unaffected by Proposition 209 and located in California. And I compared enrollment in those programs at those two universities with enrollment stats for UCLA and UC Berkeley and for the medical school. I used UCSF to compare the stats for underrepresented groups.
I found that there was no consistent difference between the private institutions, which were practicing affirmative action, and the public ones, which had to rely on holistic admissions to diversify their classes. In fact, UCLA and UCSF medical schools had distinctly higher percentage enrollments of African-American, Native American, and Hispanic students than did Stanford and USC medical schools, the private medical schools that could have and did have affirmative action. The MBA programs I examined were inconsistent. In other words, well, you couldn’t draw any conclusion from the four that I looked at. The public law schools had a slightly higher percentage of minority enrollment than the private ones did.
When people talk about the experience of California’s UCs in 1996, especially when you’re talking about graduate school, I would say we need to look at the states that forbade affirmative action like California or Michigan, versus the private institutions in those states. Was there a difference?
I took a quick look at those four schools, and what I saw either showed that the public institutions did better in terms of racial and ethnic diversity or there was no significant difference.
If you are a member of an underrepresented group, do not be discouraged by the hype about the end of race-conscious admissions and the absence of formal affirmative action programs and applying to graduate school. I don’t think much is going to change.
Choose the programs that support your goals and where you are competitive, then show that you belong at those programs. You don’t need to reject yourself. Let the schools do it, or better yet, let them admit you because you’re a great candidate and you’re going to add to their class and community.
Advice for applicants in well-represented groups [13:17]
For those of you in well-represented groups, you also need to show that you share the values and have the experiences schools value. That hasn’t changed, and it is not going to change in the foreseeable future. Whether you belong to an underrepresented group or an overrepresented group in admissions, the consultants at Accepted are here to assist you in putting your best foot forward, including showing that you have the qualifications and the qualities that admissions committees have sought and will continue to seek in the students that they admit to top graduate programs and professional schools.