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Changing Admissions Policies
Recent Supreme Court decisions impact affirmative action programs

By Bob Laird

The Supreme Court's June 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger strongly supports affirmative action in university admissions and comes very close to being a national policy statement on the importance of accessibility and opportunity for all members of American society.

However, while the court held that racial and ethnic diversity is a compelling interest of colleges and universities and that such institutions are justified in considering race and ethnicity in their admissions decisions in order to build a critical mass of underrepresented minority students within their student bodies, the decision also carries with it specific requirements that may create difficult choices for the leaders of colleges and universities across the country, especially large, selective public universities.

The most telling of these requirements is that any institution that wishes to consider race and ethnicity in its admissions process must conduct a full review of each individual applicant and compare each applicant against all other applicants as it makes its admissions decisions.

As director of undergraduate admissions at UC Berkeley when California passed Proposition 209-the landmark 1996 anti-affirmative action initiative-I participated in implementing the kind of policy that all colleges and universities now should consider, including a type of comprehensive individual review process that has long been the practice at most private colleges and universities, but has generally not been used by large, selective public universities.

Many large universities (some private, most public) that receive many thousands of applications use formulas-often a combination of grade point average and test scores-to sort their students and, in many cases, to make actual admissions decisions. Going from a process in which few or no applications are actually read in full to a process in which every applicant is given a comprehensive review means adding lots of readers, building a technological capacity to track and record individual and collective admissions decisions, and developing the ability to evaluate the consistency and reliability of individual readers.

It is admittedly a complicated undertaking to go from a mechanical, formula-driven admission process to a comprehensive review process, but it is a transformation that in recent years has been successfully undertaken in part or in full by the University of Florida at Gainesville, the University of Texas at Austin, and, following Berkeley's lead, other campuses in the UC system (although some UC campuses still rely on a basic academic formula and then add points for other qualities or experiences gleaned from the application).

A comprehensive review process requires thinking about applicants in more complex, subtle, nuanced ways. The University of Virginia and Berkeley are the models for public universities, reading every single one of their freshman applications and using no formulas or clumsy point totals.

Last August, the University of Michigan became the first college or university to announce its freshman admission policy and process crafted under the Grutter decision, as well as under the finding in Gratz v. Bollinger-the second University of Michigan case decided by the court last June. The campus has modified its admission process to include a review of each individual applicant and to eliminate the point assignments which the Supreme Court found unacceptable in the Gratz decision.

The University of Michigan intends to consider race and ethnicity to the full extent permitted. Its past president Lee Bollinger, and its current president Mary Sue Coleman deserve immense credit for pursing with courage and tenacity-and money-what they believed to be right.

What should colleges and universities do under these Supreme Court decisions?

The discussion that follows applies primarily to colleges and universities admitting freshman or undergraduate transfer students. Most of the items listed, however, also apply to graduate and professional schools.

  1. A college or university should have a clearly written, formal admissions policy. This policy should be crafted by the senior policymaking body of the institution, and the policy should be tied directly to the mission statement of the institution. If diversity is identified as one of the university's goals, the policy statement should include a broad definition of that term, making clear that diversity means a student body that encompasses students from a wide range of geographic origins, socioeconomic backgrounds, races and ethnicities, special talents, and outstanding academic and personal achievements.

  2. In achieving its admissions goals, an institution should use a variety of sound criteria in its selection process, and these criteria should be directly tied to its admissions policy statement of purpose.

    Before deciding that race and ethnicity will be included in the admissions criteria, a college or university should carefully evaluate race-neutral alternatives. An institution should also seek balance among the criteria it uses. While academic criteria should dominate in such a process, a campus should guard against a single criterion, such as test scores, becoming an overwhelming determinant.

    Institutions should avoid using criteria in ways that treat applicants as groups and that treat all members of such groups as exactly the same-not just on the basis of race and ethnicity, a practice which the Supreme Court struck down in the Gratz decision, but also on the basis of zip-code or high school or leadership or achievement or hardship.

    Giving all students at a particular high school 300 points as "disadvantaged" without considering the wide variation in circumstances that are bound to exist from one student to another, even within a particularly disadvantaged high school, is careless and imprecise. So, too, are application reading processes that use "binary" review/scoring, a process in which an applicant gets, say, 150 points for "community service" or gets 0 points, with no gradations between the absolutes.

    While Ohio State and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst are the only two universities that have publicly admitted to assigning points based on race and ethnicity following the Supreme Court decisions, there are probably others.

  3. An institution should decide what "critical mass" means for racial and ethnic groups within its student body and set admissions/enrollment goals based on these determinations. The Grutter decision permits colleges and universities to determine enrollment goals that will achieve a critical mass of enrolled students from particular racial and ethnic groups. One way to do this is to use flexible target ranges that are reviewed and adjusted each admissions cycle.

  4. Colleges and universities that have relied on formulas in their admissions decisions should reduce or eliminate their use-especially if the formulas have been used as the primary academic measure-even if the formulas are used only for mass sorting.

    Admissions formulas most often combine grade point average and one or more test scores. The problem with such formulas is that they distort the qualifications and achievements of individual applicants in much the same way that assigning 30 points to every African American applicant to the University of Michigan did.

    Treating all GPAs as if they have exactly the same meaning, without examining what courses a student has taken in achieving that grade point average, or whether that GPA includes extra points for honors-level courses that may not have been nearly as available in many other applicants' high schools, is clearly unfair. It is also unfair to assume that all test scores mean the same thing for all applicants, without consideration of an individual applicant's family income, parental education levels, race or ethnicity, language history, and access to expensive test preparation courses.

    In my view, the use of formulas or indices to make "automatic" admission decisions is not ethical and is in direct opposition to the guidelines set forth by the Supreme Court.

    At the very least, an institution that uses a formula or index to sort applicants should ensure that a senior admissions officer reviews applications that have been rejected by such a process.

  5. An institution should read as many individual applications as possible. Reading applications is labor-intensive and therefore expensive, but it's also the way to make the best-informed and fairest decisions possible.

    Every application should be read by at least two different readers, and the second reader must not know the evaluations or scores assigned by the first reader. A fair, effective comprehensive review process depends upon the careful, professional judgment of experienced admissions readers.

  6. An institution should consider an applicant's context in assessing her achievements. It should be obvious that, given the huge disparities in opportunities offered to American youngsters, it is crucial to assess a student's achievements against her circumstances. This means learning and understanding as much as possible about the student's individual and family circumstances as well as those within her school and community.

    Assessing an applicant's circumstances does not mean automatically rewarding applicants who have faced difficulties. It means measuring their achievements against those challenges. It means acknowledging the qualities of responsibility and dependability in a student who cares for younger siblings every day after school as much as for the student who is a leader in school activities. It means recognizing that an applicant who has taken only two Advanced Placement courses, and done well in them, may have done all that she could if those were the only two AP courses offered in her high school.

    Part of understanding the contexts of individual applicants is building accurate knowledge about individual high schools. A college or university can build academic and socioeconomic profiles of high schools using databases that are widely available. The UC Berkeley admissions staff, for example, has constructed sophisticated profiles of every high school in California.

  7. An institution should regularly evaluate its individual criteria and its aggregated criteria to determine if they are achieving the goals attributed to them and to the admissions policy in the statement of purpose. Although there are limits to the precision with which such validity studies can be done, an institution should be obligated to do the best analysis it can on its selection criteria.

  8. Finally, a college or university should regularly review the outcomes of admissions cycles to ascertain if race and ethnicity still need to be included among the selection criteria in order to achieve a critical mass of a particular racial or ethnic group within the student body.

Depending on an institution's application volume and the kind of individual review process it adopts, moving to such a process will cost a significant amount of money. When the admissions office at UC Berkeley moved to such a process for fall 1998, it required an additional $200,000, mostly for increased staff and more advanced technological capabilities. The University of Michigan calculates that its new process will cost the campus between $1.5 million and $2 million in its first year.

At a national meeting in Washington, D.C. just a few weeks after the Supreme Court's University of Michigan decisions, a number of university presidents argued that they simply can't afford to do this. The court's opinion emphasizes, however, that an institution which considers race and ethnicity in its admission process may not avoid a comprehensive review of applicants by pleading that such a process would impose an administrative burden or excessive costs.

The we-can't-afford-it argument, of course, isn't true at all-even in the states that have had the most severe budget cuts. In spite of difficult budget times, many colleges and universities have increased their funding for admissions offices. That money, however, has gone to marketing, outreach and recruitment-rather than to increasing the professional admissions reading staff-as part of the intense competition for students among institutions. Colleges do have the resources.

What those presidents were really saying is that they don't want to take money from faculty research or from salary increases or expansion of the physical plant and redirect it to a more careful and thorough admissions process. It will be interesting, however, to see how many presidents hold to this position. I think it will prove difficult politically in many places to say, "We're not willing to pay the financial price to give more African American, Latino and Native American students an opportunity at our university."

Following the Supreme Court's decisions, the consideration of race and ethnicity in university admissions is now legally permitted at both public and private colleges and universities in every state except at the public universities in three states. That is a painful irony for admissions officers in Washington, Florida and-most especially-California, the most racially and ethnically diverse state in the union.

At the same time these Supreme Court decisions were a pronounced defeat for the individuals and organizations opposed to affirmative action, such as the Center for Individual Rights (CIR) and the American Civil Rights Institute in Sacramento. CIR in particular had spent years identifying plaintiffs, framing cases, and choosing what it thought would be very favorable federal court jurisdictions.

There will almost certainly be legal challenges to the admissions policies and processes that colleges and universities put in place to consider race and ethnicity now. Those challenges, however, will be difficult to mount and very tough to prove because of the deference the court has shown to colleges and universities in the Michigan decisions, and because of the leeway that the court has given institutions to define critical mass and to develop admissions processes based on individual review.

At the moment, faculty admission committees, presidents and chancellors, and boards of trustees and regents at many public and private universities are trying to figure out where they stand with regard to the consideration of race and ethnicity in admissions. And many public universities are working to reconcile the ability to consider such factors against the sharp increase in costs and labor that an individual review process will entail.

The Supreme Court has made it clear, however, that in order to consider race and ethnicity, institutions must evaluate each applicant individually and fully. In spite of the burdens such a process may impose, it will almost certainly mean better-informed and fairer decisions. I think that's a very good thing.

Bob Laird served as director of undergraduate admissions and relations with schools at UC Berkeley.

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