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The Relevance of Affirmative Action in College Admissions


The New York Times recently devoted front-page space to the notion that the end of affirmative action might change college admissions forever. This is a hot-button topic for many people, as evidenced by the number of reader comments (over 1,000 just a few days post-publication). There are strong arguments on both sides of the affirmative action debate when it comes to admissions. But no matter where you stand politically, we do not believe that the pending court decision, which most are expecting will reverse the legality of affirmative action in choosing a class, will have all that much an impact. Why? Because colleges want diverse classes (for good reason) and will find a way to do what they want within the confines of the law. They may not be able to openly court diversity the way they do now, but they will still be able to obtain it.

Colleges may not be able to openly court diversity the way they do now, but they will still be able to obtain it.

The college admissions process in the US is already structured to enable colleges to make the decisions they want without strict adherence to academic standards. Even at the most elite US-based schools, there are no hard cut-offs for GPA or standardized test scores. Admissions are made holistically, and colleges don’t need to provide a rationale for why they’ve chosen one student over another. Even at public colleges, they have wide latitude to make the decisions they want, and that is not going away, even if affirmative action does.

For example, the University of Chicago touts a middle 50% ACT range of 34-35 for its most recent class (which puts the entire middle 50% in the top 1% of ACT test-takers). But it also shows that it accepted at least one person with a 20 on the ACT (whose score falls in the 51% of test-takers). No doubt, this person with the 20 was taken over many other students with higher scores. But the college wanted this person for other reasons. And now, with most schools staying test-optional (including UChicago), colleges don’t need to review or report these standardized metrics. This paves the way for colleges to accept candidates in a way that makes their decisions even harder to compare since test scores are not required, and GPAs are not standardized. We’ve long said that the move to test-optional admissions may have gained traction due to COVID but that it has persisted because the policy allows highly selective colleges to get more diverse by ignoring test scores, which are typically lower among underrepresented groups.

So, how will colleges find diversity without being certain of any candidate’s race (if that is even possible)? In the same way that they find wealthy students despite being need-blind in the admissions process. They can prioritize students from traditionally underrepresented zip codes. They can prioritize extracurricular experiences that correlate with diversity. They can go back to interviewing all candidates and placing more emphasis on life experiences, and adversities overcome, as expressed in these interviews. Simply by prioritizing the types of attributes that many underrepresented groups share, they can obtain diversity without knowing for certain any individual’s race. It may be harder to do, but it will still be very possible.

We don’t believe that the end of affirmative action will somehow open the gates for more whites and Asians to be admitted, at least not in the long term. There may be a dip as colleges adjust to new ways of finding diversity, but most will get the hang of it quickly. The colleges have structured their admissions processes to suit them, and short of requiring the schools to set academic minimums, there is simply no way to dictate to colleges who they should accept.

Tim Brennan
January 25, 2023
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