The future of racial diversity in higher education currently hangs in the balance. Like many legal experts, we expect that the Supreme Court will declare race-based affirmative action unconstitutional with their decisions in Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina and, more pertinently for Stanford, Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard. The decisions are expected in the coming weeks.
Some experts believe these rulings won’t change the racial composition of colleges that practice holistic admissions. We disagree. Without preparation, we already know what the outcome of this decision may look like. The enrollment of Black and Latine students at UC Berkeley and UCLA dropped by around 50% following Proposition 209, a 1996 California law banning the consideration of race in state university admissions.
We resolutely support affirmative action. The policy remains crucial to advancing two critical goals: enhancing social mobility and unlocking the academic benefits that arise from a diverse student population.
It is well-documented that Black and Latine children do not have access to the same educational resources as their white counterparts on average, putting them at a disadvantage in the college admissions process. In nearly every state in the country, Black and Latine students are more likely than white students to attend under-resourced schools and live in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Non-holistic college admissions criteria do not take these factors into account: a disparity that affirmative action attempts to redress.
Highly-selective colleges are the gateway to the elite in the U.S., producing leaders and high-earners in politics, law, medicine, engineering, business and the arts. Affirmative action therefore serves social mobility by propelling more historically marginalized students into the social and economic elite. Moreover, by increasing representation of marginalized voices in the elite, affirmative action ensures that the concerns and perspectives of marginalized groups are better represented in society at large. This, in turn, helps to break down the existing institutional barriers that prevent marginalized individuals from succeeding.
Affirmative action also improves the educational experience for all students, not just for those who directly benefit. In Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote for the Supreme Court’s majority opinion that using race in admissions “further[s] a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.” Ensuring racial and cultural diversity at universities allows students to learn not just from their lectures, but from each other in and out of the classroom. By exposing students to a diverse range of viewpoints and lived experiences, universities prepare them to become responsible and well-qualified members of a cosmopolitan society. As a research university, Stanford also strongly benefits from diversity in the laboratory; in its amicus brief for the Harvard and UNC cases, the university wrote that “diversity promotes better science,” a claim that is extensively backed in the brief.
There are, of course, imperfections in existing affirmative action policies. Asking students to describe their race — essentially, the color of their skin — obscures important details about their ethnicity. The current system of collecting racial data paints each group as a monolith, when in fact students’ experiences and socioeconomic status can vary wildly depending on their ethnicity or heritage. For example, among Black students at elite colleges, African Americans who are descendants of slaves are underrepresented compared to Black students who are first- or second- generation African immigrants. Some also argue that affirmative action policies benefit wealthy racial minorities — however, this is likely a symptom of college admissions as a whole, rather than affirmative action specifically.
Perhaps as a response to these issues, many supposedly “race-neutral” admissions policies have been floated as alternatives for race-based affirmative action. These include class-based affirmative action, ending legacy admissions, and eliminating Early Action. These policies may mitigate the effects of ending race-based affirmative action, but they are not a sufficient replacement to maintain the current level of racial diversity at selective institutions. Harvard’s 2018 Smith Report, which modeled the results of effecting these policies, concluded that the university would experience a significant decline in the enrollment of Black students in every scenario. Therefore affirmative action remains the most effective admissions policy to enhance diversity.
With these pillars of our education at stake, we are calling for Stanford to lay out a clear roadmap in advance of the Supreme Court ruling. We want to know what could change and how the university plans to respond, even without all the details of the ruling.
Peer institutions have already responded: Stanford could hold a panel on the upcoming decisions as Princeton recently did, with Stanford legal experts, moderated by university leadership. Stanford could create a website outlining the relevant facts and numbers of the admissions process, like Harvard did. President Marc Tessier-Lavigne could make the case for affirmative action, as Columbia’s president Lee Bollinger has repeatedly done.
Due to the ongoing Harvard lawsuit, the public has gained unprecedented insight into Harvard’s admissions process and how it factors race into the equation — for example, via its infamous personality rating, which purports to measure personal qualities like courage, leadership, kindness, and integrity. The plaintiffs argue that this subjective rating has unfairly disadvantaged Asian applicants, who receive lower personal ratings on average than other racial groups.
These conversations are crucial; hidden factors like personality ratings determine who is granted admission into the most hallowed halls of education. We want to know how Stanford does it too: we are asking Stanford to let some light into the black box of admissions.
Why do we deserve to know?
Without an understanding of the current admissions process, we cannot prepare ourselves for the scope of change that may follow the Supreme Court rulings. Even for admitted students who later read their admissions file, the process is remarkably opaque. Admissions files are typically heavily redacted and coded with abbreviations which, even when spelled out, remain vague — using terms like “intellectual vitality” (IV) and “high school rating” (HSR).
The outcome of the Supreme Court decision will deeply affect all members of our community. It is an especially great cause of anxiety for underrepresented students whose communities at Stanford may shrink. Diversity is core to the academic and personal development of Stanford students. It is very important to maintain, and also very difficult to maintain; we need to know Stanford’s plan.
For a start, it is unclear what it means for colleges to not take race into account in admissions. Because race is a pervasive and critical component of many students’ lived experiences, students often participate in identity-based clubs and write about their familial and cultural background in required application essays. How will colleges use this information? Sometimes students’ last names can reveal their ethnic heritage — will this influence admissions officers’ assessments?
We are asking the following:
- If race is mostly a proxy for diverse lived experiences, then how will admissions policies adapt to maintain that diversity?
- If racial diversity is a value separate from diversity of lived experiences, then what does Stanford want their student body to look like?
- Most crucially, how does Stanford currently factor race into admissions? Is it explicit, implicit, coded away in application-sorting algorithms?
If Stanford truly prioritizes giving students “the opportunity to learn from the wonderful diversity of identities, experiences, and perspectives that exist in the world,” then it should work in advance to transparently inform students and all who will be affected by this monumental ruling. We have faith that Stanford administrators will fulfill its commitments to underrepresented students: it is now crucial to tell us how.