Affirmative Action Thrives at Most Selective Colleges

Carolyn Phenicie, Roll Call, March 23, 2015

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Higher education groups have new research that says the most selective private colleges are most likely to use race-conscious admissions, but colleges across the selectivity spectrum, both public and private, have similar measures.

“The practice of race-conscious admissions is not the sole domain of the most selective institutions,” said Lorelle Espinosa, assistant vice president of the Center for Policy Research and Strategy at the American Council on Education, a higher-education advocacy group.

The ACE conducted the survey of practices with the Civil Rights Project at UCLA and Pearson Research.

Preliminary results showed about 80 percent of the most selective private schools–those that admit less than 40 percent of applicants–have a race-conscious admissions policy, a proportion that decreases as schools get less selective.

The most common practices, according to the survey of 338 schools, include articulation agreements that allow students to transfer easily from community colleges, targeted recruitment at high-minority high schools and the use of what is known as holistic application reviews.

Holistic reviews allow schools to consider all facets of an application, including history of overcoming hardship or ability to contribute to diversity on campus, instead of harder data such as test scores or grade point averages that might eliminate qualified minority applicants.

The study also asked colleges which policies were the most effective.

The Effectiveness Test

Holistic review was the only policy to rank among schools’ most commonly used policies as well as the ones that proved most effective, according to Matt Gaertner, a senior researcher with Pearson.

Schools also successfully diversified by setting yield targets to ensure a high number of accepted minority students enrolled or by removing requirements that applicants submit test scores, Gaertner said.

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But education experts don’t see a one-size-fits-all solution. Federal regulations are changing and eight states limit or ban affirmative action at public institutions.

Richard McCormick, former president the University of Washington, said voters’ rejection of race-conscious admissions in 1998 led to a dramatic decline on the share of minorities in the next freshman class.

Washington’s admissions officers used surrogates for race to work around the ban and ensure diversity. The school set up privately-funded scholarships for minority applicants, required applicants to detail experience with adversity and diversity, and targeted recruiting at high-minority schools. It took five years to return to pre-ban diversity, McCormick said.

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McCormick was president of Rutgers University in New Jersey until 2012. Officials there established the Rutgers Scholars program to target high-achieving middle school students in high-minority districts and provide them with mentors and academic support through high school. Those participants accepted at Rutgers can attend tuition free. The program has been a “huge success,” he said.

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