Season 1 – Episode 53 – Diversity and Affirmative Action: Higher Education Admissions
In the summer of 2023, the United States Supreme Court’s affirmative action ruling had a profound impact on higher education. Two key cases, Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina, reshaped admissions practices in the country. As the consequences of this decision begin to unfold on college campuses, the question arises: What does it mean for diversity? Advocates nationwide are expressing concerns about representation and diversity not only in undergraduate programs but also in graduate and doctoral programs in the years to come.
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Darren Gaddis: From CITI Program, I’m Darren Gaddis, and this is, On Campus. Today, Affirmative Action and Diversity. I spoke with James Murphy, the Deputy Director of Higher Education Policy at Education Reform Now. As a reminder, this podcast is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide legal advice or guidance. You should consult with your organization’s attorneys if you have questions or concerns about the relevant laws and regulations discussed in this podcast. Additionally, the views expressed in this podcast are solely those of the guest and do not represent the views of their employer. Hi James. Thank you for joining me today.
James Murphy: Hey, Darren. Thanks for having me.
Darren Gaddis: To get us started today. What is your educational and professional background?
James Murphy: So I work in higher education policy at an organization called Education Reform Now, but my background is actually, I have a PhD in English literature and I thought I was going to be a literature professor one day, but while I was putting myself through grad school, I did so by becoming an SAT tutor, which introduced me to the opposite side of the world I work in now. I was tutoring students with an immense amount of privilege and wealth, and in doing that, I started writing as a freelance journalist about education, about higher education and admissions primarily. And so roughly three and a half years, almost four years ago now, I went from writing about higher education and higher ed policy to actually working in higher education policy.
Darren Gaddis: Today’s conversation is going to be about all things affirmative action and to help us ground our conversation today, what exactly is affirmative action?
James Murphy: That’s a really good question because it depends who you talk to. In part, one thing I’m hoping your listeners come away with today is that maybe we should stop even using the term affirmative action because it’s not very useful at this point. So the term goes back to the early ’60s, I want to say 1961, with an executive order that President Kennedy issued saying essentially that workplaces should take affirmative action to eliminate discrimination or unfairness in hiring policies with respect to race and gender. So it sounds fine. What has ended up happening is that affirmative action has become synonym for racial preferences, and that’s I think, wrongheaded in all respects in the workplace and in college admissions, and in other areas. But I think in college admissions, it’s deeply wrongheaded for a couple reasons.
But I think basically, what we should say about the Supreme Court decision that was issued in June or the opinion that came out in at the end of June is that it was not banning affirmative action in college admissions. It was banning the consideration of race in the admissions process. And I think it’s important to limit that definition for pretty basic reason, which is that the decision was limited. It was limited to just admissions decisions. It had nothing to do with financial aid and certainly nothing to do with hiring. And what we’ve seen in the aftermath of the decision is that you’ve got attorneys general and some governors and some senators basically thinking that the Supreme Court banned affirmative action. Nothing like that happened. That is not the case at all.
Darren Gaddis: And with this understanding, what is the difference between affirmative action and diversity?
James Murphy: Yeah, so in thinking about the origin of affirmative action and why it’s really not correct to think about, to use in the context of college admissions, not only is the term hazily defined and incorrectly defined as a racial preference, which is not the case at all. Nobody has ever gotten into college based on their race alone. Nobody’s ever gotten into college based on their SAT score alone or their GPA alone. You don’t get into especially a highly competitive college based on one factor by itself. But the thing to also note about the origins of affirmative action is that it was meant pretty much to be, or it was designed to be restorative or parative in the sense that it was designed to make up for decades or truly centuries of discrimination and lack of opportunity for people of color. So the idea was that you would give applicants in applying for a job, perhaps a slight advantage in the hiring process or the admissions process as a way to make up for history.
That all went out the window when the Supreme Court ruled in a case properly known as this is Bakke. That was not a justification for providing any kind of preference or consideration of race in the admissions process. What was valuable for colleges was diversity, that it was okay to give some consideration to race because creating a diverse campus was a benefit, not just to those students who might get a small tip in the process, but to all students on campus that it benefited everybody on campus. So diversity has been essentially the justification, what the court called, a compelling interest that allowed colleges to consider race in the admissions process. With the decision and students for fair admissions. The court has essentially ruled that diversity is not enough of a justification to consider race as one of the factors that colleges consider in the admissions process.
Darren Gaddis: In the simplest form, how does affirmative action relate to diversity?
James Murphy: So I think the way race conscious admissions relates to diversity on campus is that it is one of many factors that colleges consider that can be useful or that could be helpful to an applicant in getting in. And this goes back to the idea that nobody gets in because of one reason. So a legacy, right? So a student who applies whose parents went to that same college has an advantage, a clear advantage in getting into highly selective colleges, but it’s not like being a legacy is enough to get that person in. Highly selective colleges have very large pools of very highly qualified applicants. So what ends up happening is at the end of the admissions process, colleges would look through their applicants, the ones they’ve identified as, “Okay, this is a good fit for our school. This person is likely to succeed here and contribute to campus.”
You would then pull into consideration factors like athletics, like being a legacy, like geography. Are you from Montana? We have no students we admitted from Montana this year. We really would want to be able to say we have students from every state. Race was a consideration in that process, essentially, a sort of a tipping factor among highly qualified applicants. So race conscious admissions were important for contributing to diversity on campus because this is a fact of American society. The vast majority, let’s not say the vast majority, the majority of highly qualified applicants unfortunately tend to be from very wealthy families. And wealth correlates highly with race in America. So if you just simply went with a kind of lottery system and sometimes people propose it wouldn’t really work because there are a vast… There are many more people who are White and wealthy than who are, say, Black and wealthy or Latino and wealthy. So considering race was one way to help accomplish diversity, but important to say that it was being used not to admit a student or to give them a preference, but essentially to be one of many factors that would help a highly qualified student get in.
Darren Gaddis: Taking all this information into consideration, how can a diverse student body be achieved without considering race, ethnicity, sex, and other factors during the mission process?
James Murphy: All of the efforts that colleges are about to engage in and have been engaged in to make campuses more diverse, they’re not going to make up for the impact that being able to consider race had on diversity. If you want to admit more students who are African-American, who are Hispanic, who are Natives, the best way to do that is to look at… So all of these other efforts are not going to make up for the fact that selective colleges can no longer consider race. We are likely to see a decline in the representation of probably most of the, especially Black and Hispanic students at your super selective colleges, the kinds of colleges that admit less than 25% of applicants.
Darren Gaddis: With this in mind, and the impact of the recent Supreme Court decision, what is still legal, and what isn’t?
James Murphy: Yeah, it’s a good question, and it’s being fought over right now. In a sense, the decision is the beginning of the fight. The real fight now begins on how are we supposed to interpret that decision, or how are colleges supposed to interpret that decision? How should states interpret that decision? So the Supreme Court opinion talked about college admissions decisions. It also is worth noting the phrase affirmative action appears nowhere in the majority opinion, some of the other sort of adjacent opinions. But in the main opinion, they never used the word affirmative action. It was simply about college admissions. So what remains legal is using or considering race in recruitment processes, could remain legal for colleges to consider race in financial aid decisions and yield processes or in yield strategies. And yield strategies is the fancy term that people use for once you’ve admitted a student, getting them to come to campus.
So that remains, the decisions had nothing about yield strategies. And by what kind of strategy are we talking about? Flying events that are geared towards students of color. It’s had nothing about diversity equity initiatives on campus. It said nothing about diversity hiring on campus. So really and truly, everything still remains on the table except for the consideration of race alone as a factor. I should also add that the Supreme Court opinion also stated right in the last paragraph of the opinion, Chief Justice Roberts took the time to say that, “Nothing about the decision banned a college from considering a student who wrote about their racial identity, in say their essay and how it contributed to their character.” Right? So it’s perfectly fine for a Latino student to talk about growing up Latino in New Hampshire and what the impact that had positive, negative, whatever, on who they are and why they want to go to this college. That remains perfectly legal to do. So a lot has not changed in the process, but that one single issue, that idea that you cannot consider race as something that would give you a tip, give you an advantage among other highly qualified applicants that’s gone, and that will likely have a large impact.
Darren Gaddis: Understanding now, what is still legal, how can universities continue to admit diverse student bodies following this recent Supreme Court decision? And what are some of the guidelines that you just mentioned?
James Murphy: I think there are two main things that colleges can do. So the first thing universities can do if they want to continue to admit diverse student bodies is get rid of any barriers to diversity that already exist at their institutions. So number one on the chopping block, for instance is, using a legacy preference, giving a preference to students whose parents went to college. We know that this advantage disproportionately goes to White students. It obviously can’t go to students who are first generation students. So getting rid of legacy is a very easy and obvious step. Other kinds of preferences that significantly benefit White and wealthy candidates and therefore hurt students of color are athletic preferences at highly selective colleges. There are many sports at Ivy League and liberal arts colleges that get very little attention beyond the people who play them. There’s sports like squash, like rowing, like swimming. The advantage athletes get is large, and again, a barrier likely to diversity, early decision practices, early action admissions.
So the admissions practice where a student applies by November 1st, gets a decision early and commits to going there. Evidence seems to show that, again, benefit goes largely to White wealthy students who go to private schools. All these practices should be examined to see if they’re creating barriers to diversity. So that’s one of the opportunities of this.
The second thing that needs to be done is in recruitment, colleges should be expanding where they are sending representatives to recruit students. They should be expanding their outreach and contact.
And then the final thing, I think, beyond recruitment, is campus climate. I think one of the less discussed dangers of this decision, it’s not only that, by removing the consideration of race ain the admissions process, you one, likely will lead to fewer applications by students of color. It’ll just feel, “Oh, this is my chances just got worse here. I’m not going to waste the time and the money in filling out this application.” We know that happened at the University of California system, for instance, right after they got rid of race conscious admissions, the next year, applications by Black and Brown students to Berkeley and UCLA dropped.
But even beyond the effect of it would have on lower application numbers, lower admit rates, for those students who color get in. There’s a kind of feedback loop happening here, which is you go to campus and you see fewer people that look like you. And for some people that doesn’t matter. For some people, that’s not an important consideration. But for some people, understandably, it does matter. It is an important consideration. And so if you’re going to campus and gosh, there are barely any students here look like me. How happy am I going to be here? How welcome will I feel? So really quickly to sum it up, you’ve got to get rid of the barriers that already exist, expand recruitment to become less reliant on pipelines and make sure that your campus is welcoming to students of color.
Darren Gaddis: What else should we know about diversity, affirmative action in higher education admissions?
James Murphy: Yeah, the one thing we didn’t talk about, it’s really important to discuss here, is graduate school. A lot of the focus, understandably, is on undergraduate admissions because a lot more people go to college than go to grad school. But the SFA decision impacts PhD programs, med schools, law schools, business schools, an undergraduate degree is an important pathway to wealth and opportunity. But professional schools and graduate schools, med schools, and law schools, and business schools already have shamefully low diversity numbers, in medicine. So the other thing then to highlight here is that the harm that this decision is going to do will be serious, not just for undergraduate education, but for postgraduate education, for med school, for lawyers, and that harm is going to be perhaps even worse than the damage done to undergraduate education.
Darren Gaddis: James, thank you for joining me today.
James Murphy: Oh, it was a real pleasure to talk with you and hope this conversation’s been helpful to your listeners.
Darren Gaddis: Thank you for listening to today’s episode and be sure to follow, like and subscribe to On Campus with CITI Program to stay in the know. If you enjoyed this podcast, you might also be interested in other podcasts from CITI Program, including On Research and On Tech Ethics. Please visit CITI Program’s website to learn more about all of our offerings at www.citiprogram.org. I also invite you to review our content offerings regularly as we are continually adding new courses, subscriptions, and webinars that may be of interest to you like CITI Program’s Mental Health and College Students course. All of our content is available to you anytime through organizational and individual subscriptions.
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- Episode 52: Affirmative Action and College Admissions
- Episode 51: Collegiate Athletic Conferences
- Episode 50: Trans and Nonbinary Students Experiences in College
- Episode 49: LGBTQIA+ Students and STEM Majors
Meet the Guest
James Murphy – Education Reform Now
James Murphy is the Deputy Director of Higher Education Policy at Education Reform Now. His writing and research about higher education have been featured in The Atlantic, the New York Times, the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and other publications.
Meet the Host
Darren Gaddis, Host, On Campus Podcast – CITI Program
He is the host of the CITI Program’s higher education podcast. Mr. Gaddis received his BA from University of North Florida, MA from The George Washington University, and is currently a doctoral student at Florida State University.