NYC’s college consultants play wait-and-see with affirmative action ruling
By Arun Venugopal | July 13, 2023, at 10:01am
In the weeks since the U.S. Supreme Court upended the landscape of higher education with its rejection of race-conscious college admissions, students seeking to get into prestigious universities are struggling to understand the ramifications of the ruling, according to consultants who help advise high schoolers on the application process.
“Right after the ruling came out, all of our students said, ‘What does this mean? And how does this affect me?’” said Caroline Koppelman, a college admissions consultant who runs the Koppelman Group.
In the days following the Supreme Court’s June 29 ruling, many colleges said they’re still figuring out the implications for themselves. And experts whose primary task is preparing high school students for the next phase also say the future remains uncertain.
The ruling brought an end to decades of race-conscious admissions practices, but the experts said it’s still not clear how selective colleges and universities will adapt, or the extent to which they’ll embrace “workarounds” that allow students’ racial backgrounds to remain in the admissions mix.
Regardless, many experts predicted that students from underrepresented groups would come to see acceptance to prestigious institutions as increasingly unobtainable.
“Feeling like they ‘belong’ on these predominantly white and upper-class campuses is already a challenge, and the decision is likely to make them feel — rightly or wrongly — even less like they can be at home at these schools,” said Janice Bloom, who co-founded College Access: Research and Action.
Bloom said students and high schools are currently in a waiting period, as colleges and universities determine their next moves in response to the ruling.
“My guess is that colleges are also in the early days of sorting through what they will do differently,” she said.
But answers could begin to emerge in the next few weeks, when colleges release the “supplemental questions” they use to go beyond the Common Application process that lets a student apply to multiple colleges at one time, said Koppelman.
That usually happens around the start of August.
Koppelman said those questions are “really good windows into how the schools are thinking about certain things,” and anticipates that most schools will give students a space to share stories about race.
Andres Marquez, who teaches history at Park Slope Collegiate, a public school in Brooklyn, said the notion that certain colleges are most desirable is something even his ninth graders have internalized, regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds. His message to those students, particularly Black and other students of color, as well as others from marginalized communities, remains unchanged.
“The playing field has never been fair or level,” Marquez said. “There is no Willy Wonka golden ticket for you. If you work hard, you may get into the Ivy League pipeline and sit alongside the wealthy elites and their legacy children, but there are no guarantees.”
The ruling significantly affects schools with highly selective admissions processes — the roughly 200 schools that accept 50% of applicants or fewer. But Koppelman said it really comes down to the nation’s most selective colleges and universities, the 30 to 50 institutions that admit fewer than 1 in 5 applicants and which have seen their acceptance rates drop to historic lows.
Any school within that coveted list functions as a “luxury brand,” she said, one with a perceived value that’s gone up and up as demand increased and supply remained the same.
“And I think for a lot of people with privileged backgrounds, it’s what they think is just in their future, has always been something that they are going to have,” Koppelman said. “And for a lot of other people it is a huge stepping stone, economically.”
Essays with subtlety, not ‘sob stories’
Many experts argue that with the inevitable disappearance of the race “checkbox,” schools will look for other ways to secure diverse student bodies, including through college essays that delve into a student’s background. College consultants are not of one mind, however, when it comes to the tricky task of writing essays and the extent to which students should delve into issues of race and identity.
Some point to the words of Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote in the majority opinion that “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.”
However, college consultant Brian Taylor of Ivy Coach said those who decide to reflect upon their race and how that shaped them need to do so in creative ways. That might mean relaying specific experiences or perspectives, rather than overly broad assertions about what it is to be from a particular background.
“Just because you’re Black doesn’t mean you have to write about George Floyd,” Taylor said.
A student who only says they’re a member of a particular race, but doesn’t communicate more specific insights, could come off as just trying to work around the affirmative action ruling.
“You have to be more subtle, but yeah, if you’re a Black applicant, make sure they know.”
Christopher Rim, the CEO of Command Education, said his main advice is to focus on extracurricular activities. He said students who are considering delving into their past or writing “sob stories” should proceed with caution.
“It should be about how students stood out, their life experiences,” he said. “And if their background did have a huge impact on an organization or club or internship that they got involved with, then that’s perfectly fine. But I wouldn’t recommend students to go out of their way to talk about their background in their college essay, because they think they’re going to see a huge benefit.”
Pushing to end legacy admissions
While much about college admissions remains uncertain, several experts felt the end of race-conscious admissions means that legacy admissions, which privilege applicants whose family members attended the same school, is now decisively in the crosshairs of higher education.
“Our crystal ball predicts that legacy admission is going to fall, not in the next few months, but in the next several weeks,” Taylor said. “They can no longer justify legacy admission without affirmative action.”
Already, he noted, several notable institutions had removed the legacy option, including Johns Hopkins, MIT and Amherst. And a civil rights complaint against Harvard’s practice of legacy admissions was filed last week by Lawyers for Civil Rights on behalf of Black and Latino students.
“The students who receive this preferential treatment — based solely on familial ties — are overwhelmingly white,” reads the complaint, which argues that legacy applicants are six times more likely to be admitted than non-legacy applicants.
The campaign to end legacy admissions has gained traction with national Democrats as well as Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina. State lawmakers have introduced legislation that would put an end to legacy admissions in New York state, but some consultants said the issue is somewhat complex.
Legacy students are more likely to donate considerable amounts of money to institutions, Rim said. He said legacy “should certainly be removed,” but that doing so presents a potential financial hurdle for those schools and for certain students.
“If you remove that and schools have lower endowments, maybe they have less scholarships to offer or grants to offer students who can’t afford it,” Rim said.
Beyond ending legacy admissions, Taylor said schools needed to adapt in other ways in order to preserve some semblance of racial diversity.
“Let’s stop earmarking so many slots in college admissions for squash players and water polo players and swimmers,” Taylor said. “These are sports that are overwhelmingly white, that are overwhelmingly privileged. These eliminate slots and admissions from Black applicants, from Latino applicants.”
Whether those changes take place remains to be seen. For the time being, students will have to make sense of a college landscape that is even more daunting than it was before.
In a recent post shared on its Facebook and Instagram feeds, the nonprofit Sadie Nash Leadership Project, which works with young women and “gender-expansive youth,” said the affirmative action ruling shouldn’t be seen in isolation, but as part of a larger, more troubling wave.
The statement said the organization is “disheartened, sad and worried about these recent Supreme Court decisions to end affirmative action, strike down student loan forgiveness and uphold discrimination against LGBTQ+ folks.”
“These decisions, the anniversary of the end of Roe v. Wade, and the expanding gender-affirming care bans are all very overwhelming,” it said.
Samra Ghermay, the director of development and communications at Sadie Nash Leadership Project, said the combination of all these things within a relatively short time and against the backdrop of the pandemic was especially hard for those aspiring to be the first of their families to attend college.
“There is always the concern of losing morale with such a drastic decision that deeply affects the young people we work with and their access to education,” Ghermay said.
Originally published on Gothamist on July 13, 2023