Most higher education institutions are collectively holding their breaths in anticipation of the Supreme Court decision on affirmative action and college admissions, which is expected late this spring or early summer. Higher education institutions are bracing for the impact of the potential ban on its recruitment and admissions requirements.
Recently, states like Florida and Kansas are moving to end diversity, equity, and inclusion programs in public higher education institutions. One thing is certain: an integrated holistic admissions process is imperative when it comes to giving all students – who represent the future of workplaces everywhere – a more equitable chance of admissions success.
In the fall of 2022, The Supreme Court heard arguments in two cases against affirmative action. While it isn’t the first time the Supreme Court has had to decide the fate of this hotly-contested policy, there appears to be a general agreement that an affirmative action ban in higher education admissions is likely this time around.
These cases, brought against Harvard University and the University of South Carolina by Students for Fair Admissions, argue that affirmative action is unfair and unconstitutional and should no longer be considered in admissions to higher education institutions.
While Students for Fair Admissions believes that affirmative action creates a bias against specific students, it ignores the reason this policy was introduced in the first place: There are underrepresented minority groups who suffer significant and perpetual conscious and unconscious bias, individually, institutionally, and generationally that unfairly impacts their access to higher education. Without affirmative action, we could return to a world where institutions admit a much more homogenous pool of students who have traditional advantages stacked in their favor. In turn, we’d also regress in the little gains we’ve made in securing a diverse population of future doctors, engineers, teachers, and other professionals in the workplace.
We’ve already seen how banning affirmative action impacts public universities and racialized students. For nearly three decades California’s colleges have banned affirmative action policies. As a result, The University of California system has seen a decrease in the number of Black and Hispanic undergraduate and graduate student enrollments and graduations.
Higher education institutions are already limited in the ways that they can assess applicants to their programs. If affirmative action is banned, it will become even more critical to take a holistic and well-rounded approach to higher education admissions – especially if we want to avoid an adverse impact on workplace diversity efforts. Any group that is developing standardized tests should publish transparent demographic differences associated with their test, so that admissions committees can understand the bias associated with each data point they use.
Educational institutions will want to avoid an over reliance on standardized test scores, which fails to look at a student as an individual with their own unique lived experience. In addition, institutions can evaluate the mission of their programs, and dig deep into any implicit bias in their program’s values, mission, and admissions process. It will be crucial that programs use a variety of tools to assess a diverse range of applicants – by using non-cognitive assessments, supporting diversity and inclusion initiatives, and prioritizing the recruitment of diverse faculty, staff, and new students, among other strategies.
Those of us committed to diversifying admissions will also need to continue to work towards new and innovative admissions tools that are research-backed and effective. Peer-reviewed research shows that situational judgment tests that assess social intelligence and professionalism lead to lower score differences across demographic groups when compared with standardized tests, like the MCAT or SATs. However, companies must also commit to continuous improvement and research to address bias, demographic differences, and disadvantages. In lieu of affirmative action, assessing individuals beyond grades will be critical to ensuring we have well-rounded, diverse leaders in our future workplaces.
In addition, programs can increase their recruiting by highlighting innovative admissions initiatives that build a more equitable admissions process.
Programs can also review their application requirements and ensure that they don’t pose barriers to students, this includes: determining if GPA requirements have been steadily increasing over the years as a way to manage applicant numbers, rather than driven by data that reveals a correlation between GPA scores and academic success. The key to a student’s academic success shouldn’t be based on one single data point. Programs can also consider removing personal statement and essay requirements, which are fraught with bias; re-evaluating out of reach mandatory standardized test scores; and phasing out alumni preferences or legacy programs.
There are even more creative processes playing out in other parts of the world. In 1972, the Netherlands introduced a lottery for medical school admissions, and recently reinstated the system to encourage a more diverse and equitable medical workforce. This system, while not perfectly translatable, opens the door for creative solutions. In the US, in addition to identifying top applicants (based on academic and non-academic attributes), programs may opt to use a mission-aligned lottery system for mid-range applicants, which is a concept that has been increasingly discussed in education circles.
As we await the Supreme Court’s decision, it’s safe to say that higher education has its work cut out. Those of us that work hard to find solutions to the bias in assessments must continue to push forward to fight for a better, more equitable admissions process to provide a fair chance for students from all backgrounds. Without government policy to support education, it is imperative that we do not become complacent. There is much work to do, and many future students and our society’s future leaders are counting on us.
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