College Admissions Chaos: What Happens Now?
College admissions was turned on its head by the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action and a fiery ongoing debate about legacies. Everyone—including the White House—has opinions. How to apply to college during the most confusing year ever.
By Nicole Laporte | September 28, 2023
In late June, when the Supreme Court banned the use of racial preference in college admissions, Anna Lisa Raya was driving in her car after dropping off her middle school son at camp. Raya is a first-generation Latina who grew up in the El Sereno neighborhood of Los Angeles and attended Columbia University, and her four years on an Ivy League campus came flooding back to her as she listened to the news on NPR. At Columbia, she recalled, “I felt like an alien. I was sitting there with all these prep school kids and legacy kids and people who knew their whole lives that this was going to be their path,” she says. “There are so many of us who don’t come from that, yet we still need to be in the classroom.”
The same day, Christopher Rim, the founder of Command Education, a college consultancy in Manhattan, watched his inbox explode. Emails were pouring in from Asian-American families who wanted to hire him to coach their kids through the college application process. The parents sympathized with Students for Fair Admissions, the nonprofit group whose lawsuits against Harvard and the University of North Carolina led to the Supreme Court’s decision. (The suits claimed that the schools discriminated against Asian-American applicants who had high test scores and grades but who scored lower on things like character and “grit.”) With affirmative action now banned, the parents felt as if “they had a fair shot” in the high-stakes admissions derby, Rim says.
“Four years ago I talked to potential clients about their oldest son, but they didn’t sign up, even though their child had straight A’s,” he says. “They didn’t think they had a solid chance and that it was going to be throwing money away. But now they’re setting up their second son with me. They’re like, ‘We have a fair shot and we can do this the right way.’ They’re very excited and optimistic.”
A white mother in Los Angeles reacted to the decision with disappointment. “Me and my kids are upset about it because we feel [admissions] is now biased for white, wealthy students.” But the mother, whose children graduated from public and private schools in L.A. and went on to top-tier colleges, added, “I know some white parents who are actually happy, as they feel their kids ‘deserved’ spots taken by people of color and first-generation kids.”
Meanwhile, Lisa Johnson, the African-American founder of Private School Village, an organization in Los Angeles that supports Black and brown families who attend independent elementary and high schools, was reeling. “I keep wondering how we got here,” she says. “Even though we could have seen this coming a mile away, I don’t think many of us thought it would happen this quickly. We’re just three and a half years away from George Floyd’s death. I think we had a moment of hope that America was more fully acknowledging racial inequities. So I think we’re in shock a little bit.”
Shock, optimism, and a huge dollop of confusion are just some of the emotions that families have been experiencing since the Supreme Court’s historic decision, which undid a policy put in place in the late 1960s in the wake of the civil rights movement as a means of bringing a more diverse student body to campuses that resembled country clubs. The undoing of that law, which has shaped higher education for half a century, has added vigor to attacks on other targets in the discussion of how to achieve racial parity on college campuses. Weeks after the SCOTUS decision, the Department of Education launched a civil rights investigation into Harvard’s practice of favoring legacy applicants as well as those who are the children of donors; both groups are mainly white, privileged students. The move came just days after Wesleyan University trumpeted that it was the latest in a growing number of institutions—including Johns Hopkins, Amherst, and Occidental—that have abandoned legacy preference as a means of leveling the admissions playing field.
More gasoline was poured onto the fire when a study based on data from 1999 to 2015 by Opportunity Insights, a group of economists at Harvard, confirmed the reality that elite private colleges cater to the über-wealthy: One in six students at Ivy League colleges has parents in the one percent (i.e., earning more than $600,000 per year). As for children from the middle and upper-middle classes (the “merely affluent,” as the New York Times put it), the report stated that they are less likely to be admitted than richer or, to a lesser extent, poorer kids with the same test scores. Then in August the Biden administration weighed in, encouraging colleges to work around the affirmative action ban by considering an applicant’s zip code, experience of adversity, and family background. “This is a moment of great urgency in higher education,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.
The tumultuous state of affairs has set off a furious debate among both conservatives and progressives, leading to a flood of op-eds and think pieces, not to mention protests and summits of education experts. At issue is how to move forward now that a key tool used to increase racial diversity on college campuses has been removed. The timing is especially sensitive given how universities have doubled down on their diversity initiatives in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement.
For families the question is even more pressing. What now? How do you navigate the mixed messages? In addition to Biden’s snub of the new law, a day after the SCOTUS announcement numerous universities released statements vowing to lawfully maintain their commitment to diversity. And the new parameters of applying to college? The shifting sands of legacy admissions are making things even less clear. Families that had been counting on alumni leverage to help nudge their kids closer to an acceptance letter now see that advantage disappearing at some schools, while other colleges are threatening to follow suit under public—and ultimately, perhaps, government—pressure.
As one multiracial high school student who is getting ready to apply to college put it, “It’s definitely confusing, because I feel like I’ve been getting a lot of different explanations about what actually is going on with the Supreme Court and what this ruling really means. I think it adds even more to the stress and confusion of college applications. There’s already an added layer, being a person of color applying to schools, and this ruling complicates it even more.”
Indeed, for students of all colors, experts are predicting that the backlash to the court ruling will mean less emphasis on standardized test scores and class rank, making the already opaque holistic admissions process all the more so.
“It’s going to be a very complex year,” says John Morganelli Jr., former director of admissions at Cornell and author of Growing Ivy. Colleges will differ, he says, in how they approach evaluating students, a process that will evolve over time as institutions adopt new means of maintaining diverse classes. But in the meantime he foresees them turning to short-term solutions, such as admitting fewer students from so-called “feeder schools”: elite private high schools and some top public ones that send a large number of their graduating classes to selective universities every year.
“I think you’ll find the percentage of students taken from those feeder schools will have to be limited if you’re trying to maintain some level of diversity,” he says. “At the end of the day, colleges know who those kids are, and they are generally not the diverse group that they’re looking for.”
He also predicts that there will be more supplemental essay questions about how diversity has affected a student’s life (they are already starting to pop up on the Common Application), as a means of getting around Chief Justice John Roberts’s warning that college essays can’t be used as a substitute means of expressing a student’s race. Roberts did, however, add a caveat: “Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.” In other words, race can be discussed if it’s tied to a relevant experience.
Adam Nguyen, the founder of Ivy Link, says he is still “encouraging my students to find ways to introduce their racial background into the application…not as a trauma or a sob story but to just put it out there, because I know that readers of applications, while prohibited from specifically considering race, still have some maneuvering room to take race into account as part of the overall life experience of the student. Justice Roberts’s opinion left a little bit of room to do that.”
Some students of color, however, feel that without being able to explicitly state their race by checking a box, they will have to use up precious space spelling it out for admissions officers. “For somebody who has had a pretty racialized experience throughout their schooling, when they really want to use the essay to talk about how fantastic it has been to be an arts student or how fantastic it has been to be a part of theater, they can no longer use the application freely,” says Yetunde Daniels Rubinstein, an education consultant in Los Angeles. “They have to signal, ‘I have had a particularly racialized experience.’ It definitely feels like the pressure is a little bit back on kids of color. Or even kids who have had a marginalized experience, not just kids of color but rural folks.”
The lament over the death of affirmative action is largely based on precedent. In the nine states where affirmative action was unraveled due to legislative action, the diversity of college students plummeted and, in some cases, has not recovered. When the University of California system eliminated race conscious admissions in 1998, Black and Latino student numbers at UC Berkeley and UCLA fell by 40 percent. Over time, as those schools put more energy and resources into recruiting and supporting underrepresented students, the numbers came back up. UCLA’s 2021 incoming freshman class saw a 21 percent increase in Black students from the previous year and a 7 percent increase in Latino students. Still, Berkeley’s Black student population remains lower than it was pre-1998.
Richard Kahlenberg, a nonresident scholar at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, believes that these numbers are ultimately encouraging for the broader admissions landscape, though he admits that “it will take time” for colleges to offset the immediate effects of doing away with affirmative action. “Racial diversity is baked into the DNA of elite college communities,” he says. “I don’t think it will happen overnight, but I think over the long haul universities will be able to adjust, tighten their belts in other areas to free up resources, and bring about racial diversity and much more socioeconomic diversity than they’ve had in the past.”
An expert witness in the Students for Fair Admissions lawsuit against Harvard and UNC, Kahlenberg believes in class-conscious affirmative action, arguing that the system as it existed favored students with resources, whatever their backgrounds. “I agree that racial diversity is very important at universities,” he says. “It’s just that in the past universities took the inexpensive route and brought in fairly well-off students of all colors. Which is much better than all white, wealthy student bodies, but in my view it wasn’t going far enough.”
As for how white and Asian students will be affected in the upcoming admissions cycles, Morganelli says that the number of white students admitted at elite universities “will probably be about the same.” Asian numbers will go up because “I do think they have been hurt in the process.”
“I don’t think you were ever hurt for being white,” he continues. “With Asian students, you could look at a large group file and from a statistical point of view those students were stronger than those that were admitted. With white students, it’s not as obvious.”
Even so, Nguyen is warning his Asian clients that “they’re being lulled into complacency. Maybe their chances at Harvard might now not be 5 percent but 10 percent. The question I pose to them is, ‘Would you make an investment in the stock market if your chances of losing money were 90 percent?’ So your chances may double, but it’s not significant.”
Part of the issue, he says, is that there are so many Asian-Americans who are high performers it raises the competitive bar within their demographic pool. “We have a lot of Asian applicants who play the piano, play the violin, do things like math club. But they’re not performing at Carnegie Hall, they’re not winning math prizes, they’re not publishing in a peer reviewed journal,” Nguyen says. “So, yes, they may have a slightly better chance in the grand scheme of things now that affirmative action is out of the way, but it’s not significant enough for them to be admitted to Harvard or Columbia, because there will be other Asians who will be even more accomplished, and you’re competing in that field.” But many Asian-Americans are conflicted about the new admissions landscape. “It feels weird to be against Students for Fair Admissions, because you’re going against Asian-Americans, but most people I know are in support of affirmative action,” says one first-generation Asian-American who attended the University of California at Irvine. “I think a lot of that comes from self-awareness, of knowing, like, Sure, these kids were not being served because there were fewer Asians being accepted to Harvard. But at the same time, if you look at schools like UC Irvine, it’s filled with Asians and white people. So this may not be the right thing to say, but when it comes to college, we have lots of opportunities. So it feels kind of messed up for this to be the reason to take away the one chance for a lot of underserved communities” to get into college.
In the aftermath of the SCOTUS ruling, the spotlight is on legacy and donor preference, but so far only a handful of schools have done away with legacy admissions, and none have opted to forgo giving a boost to the children of donors. (In Manhattan last spring, parents at one elite prep school were outraged when a student whose father had donated “tens of millions” to an Ivy League school, according to one source, was admitted despite having a weak high school record.) The investigation at Harvard is bound to accelerate these shifts, but they remain highly sensitive issues, and not just because of colleges’ desire for lavish checks that result in new library wings and high-tech athletic facilities.
“You go through tribulations to make it through these schools. To have that not matter for your kids is moving the goalposts once again.”
One parent, a self-described “product of affirmative action” who grew up in a New York City affordable housing project and went on to attend St. Paul’s School and Wesleyan (“I was a cute, light-skinned Black kid who fit the profile of what they wanted to promote”), was dismayed when he heard that his alma mater was no longer giving preference to alumni children.
“You go through all the tribulations to make it through these schools” as a non-white student. “To have that not matter for your kids when they’re applying, to me, is moving the goalposts once again. I find that extremely upsetting.
“If you’re a school and you don’t have children of color, you don’t have legacies of color, that’s a problem,” he says. “You should be going out of your way” to admit those students, “because that’s how you change the culture. Schools are run by people who donate money. They sit on boards, they make decisions. As long as the board is all white, you’re going to have decisions that are always in their favor.”
The concern, she says, is for other Latino kids who “were like me, whose parents didn’t go to college. I just keep thinking, It’s hard enough. It’s just hard enough.”
Originally published on Town & Country Magazine on September 28, 2023