In this season of speculation on how the Supreme Court will rule on Fisher v. University of Texas, much has been written about whether race-neutral admissions practices can yield a racially and ethnically diverse class of incoming students. We already know such practices cannot and do not—at least at the most selective universities where race-conscious admissions, holistic review, and need-based financial aid have led to only a small fraction of students of color nationally to enroll.
Selective universities continue to face a dilemma. Today's undergraduates reflect a class-based bias where students of all colors are advantaged in admissions if their family wealth/income is sufficiently high. In other words, affirmative action as practiced favors those who can afford to go to college. Prescribing race-neutral criteria will only stretch that class-based advantage and admit more of the same. Students of color from the lower socioeconomic strata will lose the one mitigating factor—their race or ethnicity—that improves their chances of admission to the most prestigious public and private universities.
That is why race plus family income are such critical factors in admissions decisions. Indeed, combined they are a proxy for a set of experiences that bring intellectual diversity—and a panoply of worldviews—into the institution. This is where law must accommodate social science. The welter of research on the interaction of color and class is compelling. In states where race cannot be employed as a criterion (notably at the University of California's most selective campuses of Berkeley and Los Angeles), U.S. students of color have been under-enrolled for more than a generation.
Selective universities are where leaders are "born," or at least incubated. The rest of us might become upwardly mobile, but lack the halo of an Ivy or a Flagship that carries the imprimatur of excellence—some deserved, some not—that can be the difference in employment and, long before that, in the sponsorship of students for fellowships, internships, and other opportunities leading to coveted positions in the workforce.
While we might speculate about what the Supreme Court will do (and there is plenty of that), universities should prepare for how their current policies and practices can be adapted to a ruling that could enshrine race-neutrality as the bedrock principle of undergraduate admissions. Today, such a principle does not reach far enough into the US talent pool.
Thus, our selective universities must craft a diversity plan that outlines how to achieve a key part of their mission—educating all students for 21st century jobs that require new skills; promoting teamwork among professionals from disparate disciplines and cultures; and fueling the institutional capacity to grow, lead, and inspire.
In Part 2, I will consider the impact of race-neutral alternatives on STEM disciplines, and why selective universities must confront the talent development dilemma —regardless of how the Supreme Court rules next year.