By: Maggie Fipps
Applying to college feels deeply personal. You’re made up of academic statistics, athletic accomplishments, random hobbies, cultural heritage, and so many other small details. In the college application process, you attempt to fold your three-dimensional person into a flat profile, easily mailable alongside your glossy transcripts and personal essay that attempts to pique the interest of your chosen university. Like an eager teenager on a first date, you hope all of your curated conversation starters will be enough to warrant a second.
After the Supreme Court’s ruling in June, race, a deeply personal and sensitive part of people’s identity, can no longer be considered in college admissions. In two separate cases against Harvard and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) argued that their race-based admissions process violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Protection Clause in the 14th Amendment. The conservative organization is a nonprofit dedicated to the principle that “a student’s race and ethnicity should not be factors that either harm or help that student to gain admission to a competitive university.”
The Supreme Court ruled in favor of SFFA in a 6-3 split decision. In the decision, they argue that diversity benefits a university, but the affirmative action process to reach that threshold is not constitutional.
“Those interests include training future leaders, acquiring new knowledge based on diverse outlooks, promoting a robust marketplace of ideas, and preparing engaged and productive citizens. While these are commendable goals, they are not sufficiently coherent for purposes of strict scrutiny. It is unclear how courts are supposed to measure any of these goals, or if they could, to know when they have been reached so that racial preferences can end.”
That is the crux of the question. How important is diversity to higher education? Is affirmative action the answer? And how do universities now attempt to change their admissions process to still value diversity?
The first question’s answer appears obvious. Professor Carolyn Barnett, assistant professor of nursing, serves on the Kingdom Diversity Council to promote diverse perspectives at Cedarville.
“If you stay very monocultural then what ends up happening is you think that your culture is always right, always doing things perfectly and you always know better,” Barnett said. “Everyone else is, you know, down there or just like a novelty.”
In her 27 years at Cedarville, Barnett witnessed different approaches to diversity, to varying degrees of success. She wishes that students would not simply view this issue through a red or blue lens, but think critically about the policy itself.
“I like what it talks about in Joshua when they went to walk around the walls of Jericho,” Barnett said. “We saw the Angel of the Lord and he said ‘Whose side are you on?’And the angel says ‘Neither. For the Lord’s armies, I’ve come.’ I’m not on this side, I’m not on that side, I represent God.”
Barnett resonates with applicants who come from underprivileged backgrounds. Even in junior high, she felt pushed out of higher-level classes for no other reason than her race.
“By the time I got to junior high school, you can see all of those differences,” Barnett said. “I didn’t know why I wasn’t in A track. Could I have done the A track? Absolutely. The only thing that pushed me ahead was the fact that I had decided that I wanted to do nursing.”
She believes that affirmative action can effectively “level the playing field”for those whose education or surroundings hindered their growth. But she believes Cedarville rises above that.
“Here I believe that we should be above affirmative action,” Barnett said. “We should be looking at: how do we increase diversity? How do we help people who may come from an unusual background? How can we see the value that they bring in spite of not having as strong preparation? If Christ can’t make the difference, then that to me is problematic.”
College admissions, by its very nature, is discriminatory and often problematic. At most public, highly competitive universities, the paper trail of the admissions process is littered with unfair practices. Expensive application fees make it difficult for poorer students to apply. Colleges waitlist students for months, raising their hopes of admission, only to dash them right before decision day. And if Daddy’s got a building named after him? You get the point.
Admissions professionals are hopeful that affirmative action’s removal will result in a large-scale shift in the system.
“Affirmative action is one of the cards on which that house of cards was built,” said Matt Dearden, vice president of admissions at Cedarville University.
Cedarville never used affirmative action in its admissions history. However, there are what Dearden calls “race-neutral” alternatives to affirmative action that help schools diversify their student body.
“That means going to schools that maybe don’t have a 90% majority racial makeup,” said Dearden. “Maybe that means going to places with people with widely varying socioeconomic statuses. We’ve been intentional about doing that even in our own backyard in Dayton, trying to attend fairs at schools that normally we just don’t recruit very well at and try to make our presence known there.”
As schools scramble to adjust admissions policies, Dearden fears that this ruling may set schools back by overcorrection.
“We need to be careful that we’re not never considering race as part of a student’s journey,” Dearden said. “It’s a very important aspect of who a student is, what they’ve had to overcome, what their background is, all these different things. I don’t think it should be an automatic points factor like a lot of affirmative action policies were, but I hope that we don’t slingshot to never considering it.”
Dearden, and many experts, expect the legal battle to continue. The Supreme Court’s decision was ambiguous about how universities could include race in unofficial admissions factors, like in an essay or scholarship application.
“The Supreme Court will have to decide the nuance of whether any consideration of race is valid,” Dearden said. “In my opinion, however, I think (schools) need to be careful that they’re not making massive overhauls without seeing what the next year or two is going to bring.”
In 2003, Supreme Court Justices had no idea what twenty years of affirmative action would bring. In her opinion that established the policy, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor simultaneously put an expiration date on it.
“We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.”
To Dearden, that time has come.
“It probably was about time that those policies rode off into the sunset.”
Maggie Fipps is a junior Journalism student and the Editor in Chief of Cedars. She enjoys playing the piano and thrifting, and you may spot her around campus sporting Packers gear head to toe.