Institutions have an opportunity to rethink and improve diversity in admissions and recruitment strategies after affirmative action decisions

Without affirmative action, how can schools support student diversity?

Institutions have an opportunity to rethink and improve admissions processes and recruitment strategies

Key points:

The Supreme Court’s recent decision to strike down affirmative action in college admissions rocked the world of higher education, with academic institutions left to reevaluate their admissions policies and how they will continue to support diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.

But the end of affirmative action doesn’t mean the end of diversity and accessibility in higher education. A new study found that colleges and universities are finding alternative ways to bring diverse students to campus. Despite 73 percent of admissions leaders saying the ban on affirmative action has a significant impact on student diversity, schools remain committed to their DEI goals — and many are turning to holistic admissions processes to provide a more in-depth view of an applicant’s potential.

The path ahead won’t be easy. But institutions that maintain a strong commitment to diversity — and pair enhanced admissions strategies with advanced technologies like AI and data analytics — can find greater clarity in our evolving admissions landscape.

Navigating diversity in the post-affirmative action world

The months following the Supreme Court’s decision have left academic institutions in a state of uncertainty, unsure of the ruling’s legal implications and its impact on admissions policies and recruitment strategies. Nearly half of survey respondents say recruiting and retaining a diverse population of students will be their top challenge post-affirmative action, while approximately one in four cite sorting out legal complexities following the ruling.

Without affirmative action, the traditional academic metrics and admissions standards used by admissions teams fail to capture crucial aspects of student diversity and indicators of success. A student’s high school GPA or the score on their SAT or ACT won’t reflect their diverse life experiences, who they are as a person, or whether they have the skills to succeed in the future; it may simply reflect systemic inequities and institutional biases, such as whether the student attends a well-resourced school. In fact, research shows that standardized tests are biased against students of color, low-income students, and students from historically marginalized communities.

Likewise, personal statements, essays, and recommendation letters also have low reliability. Certain students may rely on family or friends to help them draft and refine personal statements, or, they may even have ChatGPT, Bard, or other AI tools write their materials for them.

By relying solely on standardized tests, personal essays, or other traditional admissions measures, schools receive incomplete or inaccurate information about applicant attitudes and the impact of racial, socioeconomic, and geographical factors. Even more concerning, schools may inadvertently disadvantage applicants who lack the resources, networks, or opportunities to fulfill these requirements — creating additional barriers for individuals from diverse backgrounds.

Rather than reinforcing existing disparities in higher education, academic institutions need to identify better ways to evaluate applicants as individuals. They can do this by developing more comprehensive processes that capture the full array of experience, skills, and diversity that students bring to campus.

3 ways schools can stay true to their diversity goals

Institutions may take a cautious approach to the post-affirmative action landscape: evaluating their options, gauging potential consequences, and watching to see what other schools are doing before making any significant changes to their own admissions processes.

This wait-and-see approach may be helpful to ensure compliance with evolving legal considerations. But sooner rather than later, institutions will need to adapt to the changing landscape and address its challenges head-on. In doing so, it’s crucial to keep commitment to diversity and equity at the forefront.

As institutions reevaluate admissions processes and explore alternative recruitment strategies, the following considerations can help your institution promote equity and inclusion in your admissions process and maintain your student diversity goals.

  1. Embrace technology, don’t fear it

In 2024, the imperative for higher education institutions to reevaluate technology stems from the transformative impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on admissions processes and education more broadly. While AI excels in rapid information processing, its inherent limitations in humanistic qualities pose challenges for fostering creativity, collaborative thinking, and innovative problem-solving. As institutions grapple with these dynamics, skepticism about AI’s potential impact on academic integrity and fairness in admissions processes emerges as a valid concern.

However, recognizing AI as a tool rather than a threat becomes crucial for navigating the evolving landscape of higher education. Institutions can leverage AI and advanced data analytics to identify and address biases, promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) goals. AI facilitates a shift towards a more holistic evaluation of applicants, empowering admissions teams to focus on individuality and potential, transcending reliance on standardized tests.

Moreover, the vast amount of data collected by academic institutions, often underutilized, presents a significant opportunity for informed decision-making. From demographic information to alumni surveys, this data can be harnessed to gauge the impact of academic programs on students’ long-term success. By analyzing data across the entire academic journey, institutions can adapt admissions and academic programs to align with evolving higher education and professional landscapes. This comprehensive approach ensures that institutions not only embrace technological advancements but also utilize data-driven insights to shape a fairer and more inclusive educational experience for their students.

Colleges and universities are rightfully skeptical about AI and other technological innovations, and their impacts on academic integrity and fairness in the admissions process. However, these concerns shouldn’t prevent you from embracing digital tools and gaining newfound value from new advancements throughout the admissions process. 

AI is simply a tool — and it’s one that can be used to benefit your admissions processes and further DEI goals rather than hurt them. By embracing AI and advanced data analytics, you can identify and address possible biases in your procedures and gain a better understanding of how your admissions process might affect the diversity of the student population. Likewise, AI can help empower admissions teams to focus more on the individuality and potential of applicants rather than solely relying on standardized tests. When used correctly, these innovations can lead to a fairer and more inclusive admissions process.

  1. Use all the data you have (and collect the data you don’t)

Academic institutions collect vast amounts of data related to their applicants, students, and programs, from demographic information captured when students first apply to the results of alumni surveys. However, much of this data remains underutilized. There’s a significant opportunity to leverage all of the data that schools collect to make more informed decisions and ensure that academic programs and the students they admit are aligned with your institution’s mission.

For example, you need to wait years after a student graduates before you can gauge the impact of an academic program on the student’s job placement, income, or professional success. By gathering and analyzing data across the entire academic journey — from application to an individual’s professional life — you can better understand which students are likely to succeed in programs, what skills and knowledge they will need to learn, and the supports and resources that are most beneficial. Ongoing data analysis can help you adapt admissions and academic programs as the higher education and professional landscape evolves.

  1. Explore holistic admissions practices

The Supreme Court ruling against affirmative action has led many schools to dig into their admissions processes and recruitment strategies to determine which elements may need to be changed or eliminated entirely. While about three in 10 institutions are revamping their recruitment strategies, according to the survey, other institutions are turning to admissions processes that aim to consider the life experiences and broader circumstances of each applicant. A majority of schools (56 percent) are moving toward holistic admissions practices to surface a more diverse cohort of applicants.

Rather than looking at academic scores or other traditional–yet flawed–inputs, holistic admissions practices take into account an applicant’s life experiences, resource access, and socioeconomic status as well as non-academic attributes such as communication, ethics, and teamwork in a comprehensive, standardized way.

Holistic admissions practices can help you recognize an applicant’s full potential beyond test scores or school resources. By considering broader circumstances and life experiences, you can account for the diverse talents, experiences, and backgrounds of all applicants–and ensure that your institution continues to live up to its commitment to equity and diversity.  In fact, many academic institutions are now following the example of schools from states that had anti-diversity legislation or affirmative bans before the Supreme Court ruling: The survey found 70 percent of institutions from such states have already moved to holistic admissions policies, and many are more advanced in the adoption of strategies to ensure diversity.

Seizing the opportunity to improve diversity and admissions

There’s no doubt the affirmative action ban is a challenge for higher education institutions. But it’s also an opportunity that offers you the chance to rethink and improve your admissions processes and recruitment strategies. The biggest mistake you can make is to give up on your commitment to broadening access to higher education rather than embracing change and adapting to the evolving landscape.

Fortunately, there’s a clear path for institutions to support diversity and improve their admissions processes. By prioritizing a holistic assessment of applicants — and investing in the technology and tools to streamline, support, and strengthen admissions processes — you can ensure higher education remains an inclusive and accessible avenue for all.

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