By Derek Newton
Reposted from Forbes, with permission.
By now you’ve no doubt seen or heard that the United States Supreme Court has disallowed the consideration of race in college and university admissions.
I do wish that instead of banning consideration of race in admissions, the Court had simply let schools make their own decisions about their own policies – letting students and families decide what types of schools and learning environments they’d want to join and absorb. Though I realize that’s naïve and that courts can’t simply leave such important things to the slow and unfair whims of market dynamics, especially when politicians are clenching the pocketbooks.
But that’s academic now. Race-aware policies are gone.
Candidly, I won’t miss race-conscious or race-considered admission policies and practices in higher education. Not because I think them unimportant or inconsequential. To the contrary, there is a mountain of evidence to show that those policies have been quite important across a wide table of national social advancements.
I won’t miss race-conscious admissions practices because race-conscious admissions practices have become completely unnecessary.
Because this court decision was probably the least suspenseful judicial decision in American education in at least a decade, we’ve all had plenty of time to consider, internalize and prepare to adjust. That is to say that schools should have been preparing to adjust; they should be prepared for this.
If they are, they know what I know – that it’s possible to admit a highly diverse class of students, to keep every commitment to access and equity, without considering race in admissions.
I know that because about three years ago I was given a demo of software that admissions offices could use – and some were using even then – to accurately predict and build their admissions classes. The software used data and analytic modeling to advise admissions officers on issues such as how many students they needed to accept and how much financial aid needed to be offered to each student individually to maximize the odds of their enrollment.
With it, schools could also build their classes by saying, for example, they want 500 freshmen, no less than 40% male, at least 50% from within 200 miles of campus, at least 50% first-generation students and so on. The software would tell admissions offices not just how many applicants they needed and how many they should admit, it would tell them exactly which students to target – by name. Or which high schools were likely to have the students that fit the criteria the school wanted. It was very precise.
Further, once a computer model of the desired class was assembled, administrators could see it ahead of time – reliably predicting things such as racial or economic or geographic diversity. Reach out to this many students in these places, accept this many of those, offer them this much money and this is the class you’ll get. They could move the levers around to change the model outcomes. More aid money, more outreach, more campus visits, fewer text messages, more applicants from Ohio, fewer from California – whatever.
During the demonstration, I asked the data guy if was possible to model racial diversity in a class and what would happen if – when – the Supreme Court outlawed the practice. He showed me that it was possible to simply turn off the data on student race. He said, in fact, that information on race did not matter when building a class, that the data was strong enough that schools simply did not need it to build the exact classes they wanted. There were, he said, plenty of data proxies for race that colleges already had and could use in admissions. Zip code, high school, parent and income information – a host of data could tell someone about an applicant’s race without telling them about their race. Data on race, he said, was just unnecessary if schools did not want to – or eventually could not – use it.
In other words, it was possible even three years ago for schools to not consider race in college admissions decisions with absolutely no impact to the decisions themselves or to the eventual composition of the enrolled class. Colleges could have stopped using race as a consideration and nothing would have changed. Which means, of course, that now that they have to stop, it’s possible that absolutely nothing will change.
This is good news, if you think about it.
It means that, despite the recent Court ruling, it’s entirely possible, even likely, that college access and diversity won’t change. At least it need not. With any effort whatsoever, higher education institutions can continue their vital roles as inclusive catalysts for enlightenment, economic mobility and a hundred other things. We can get all of the many benefits of the policy without having the policy.
Maybe the Supreme Court knew this. I’m sure most colleges and universities do. I’m far less sure about all the folks posturing and pontificating in the aftermath of the decision. Maybe they do too. But it does not matter because – in application – the ruling itself is kind of pointless. To ensure equity and access and all the dividends of the old policies, all schools need to do is buy some good admissions modeling software. They can. If they want to. We will see if they do.