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Here's What's Going On With Affirmative Action And School Admissions

Jul 7, 2018

School may be out, but there has been no lack of news this summer on race and admissions: an announcement from Jeff Sessions, a Harvard lawsuit, changes in the Supreme Court and proposals for selective high schools in New York City. Here's a rundown of the facts in place, and the latest developments.

Who is in school?

Knowing the base lines — the racial and ethnic breakdown of students in the U.S. — makes it easier to understand where students from various groups may be under- or overrepresented.

The National Center for Education Statistics projects that this fall, public elementary and secondary school enrollment will be:

  • 48 percent white
  • 16 percent black
  • 27 percent Hispanic
  • 6 percent Asian/Pacific Islander
  • 1 percent Native American
  • 3 percent members of two or more races/ethnic groups

Meanwhile, NCES reports that in 2015, out of about 17 million undergraduate students in the U.S.:

  • 57 percent were white
  • 14 percent were black
  • 19 percent were Hispanic
  • 7 percent were Asian/Pacific Islander
  • 1 percent were Native American
  • 4 percent were members of two or more races/ethnic groups

In addition, about 3 percent of all college students are from other countries on student visas.

At a glance, then, if you look across all colleges and universities, Hispanic undergraduates appear notably underrepresented and whites overrepresented when compared with the distribution of schoolchildren.

Selective colleges, not all colleges

The controversy over affirmative action is mainly concentrated at selective institutions: those that reject more applicants than they accept. But most college students, whatever their race, do not attend selective colleges.

U.S. News & World Report reported in 2016 that, among ranked schools that answered the question, nearly 80 percent accepted more than half of students who apply.

In 2017, The New York Times looked at the racial and ethnic makeup of 100 highly selective schools. They found black students, who make up 15 percent of college-age Americans, made up just 6 percent of freshmen at these schools. For Hispanics, those numbers were 22 percent and 13 percent. Whites and Asians, meanwhile, were overrepresented.

And the Times found that both racial underrepresentation and overrepresentation was increasing over time.

That's the backdrop. Here's what has changed more recently:

Attorney general drops guidance

On July 3, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded seven Obama-era guidance documents involving race and school admissions.

Guidance documents give affected organizations — in this case, schools and colleges — hints as to how various federal agencies may interpret or enforce the law. The rescinded documents supported affirmative action, stating in one, that colleges and universities were free to "voluntarily consider race to further the compelling interest of achieving diversity."

In other words: Hey colleges, you don't have to consider race in admissions. But you don't have to exclude it, either. And diversity is "compelling" — important enough to an institution's goals that it might want to think about race.

The Trump administration is now withdrawing from that position.

What does that mean?

The American Civil Liberties Union responded: "Guidance documents do not make law, but they do clarify and facilitate the law's implementation. ... This is another attack by Sessions and President Trump on people of color."

But Richard Kahlenberg, an expert on school integration at the Century Foundation, tells NPR, "I think the impact of Sessions' announcement is more symbolic than substantive. The final word on the legality of affirmative action programs lies with the courts rather than with administrative guidance."

Lawsuit accuses Harvard of discrimination

OK, so let's talk about the courts.

The reigning precedent in race-based admissions is Fisher v. University of Texas.

In 2016, the Supreme Court decided in favor of the University of Texas and against Abigail Fisher, a white applicant who was rejected. UT's policy was to consider race when admitting Texas students with grades below the top 10 percent of their high school class. The court ruled the practice was legal.

This was a 4-3 decision, and Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the opinion. Of course, Kennedy has just retired, and he stands to be replaced by a more conservative justice.

Meanwhile, there are other lawsuits cooking. Students for Fair Admissions — led by Edward Blum, a driving force behind Fisher v. University of Texas — is currently backing a suit that accuses Harvard of unfairly discriminating against Asian applicants.

In response to Sessions' July announcement, Blum tells NPR, "Students for Fair Admissions welcomes any governmental actions that will eliminate racial classifications and preferences in college admissions."

According to the 2017 New York Times report, Asians are overrepresented at elite colleges. But the lawsuit argues that Asian-Americans as a group have such high test scores and GPAs that there should be many more of them at the most elite schools, like Harvard.

In June, some of the discovery in that case made news. The plaintiffs submitted a memo saying:

  • In 2013, Harvard conducted its own internal investigation and found a bias against Asian-American applicants in its admissions process. If Harvard looked solely at academics, the investigation found, 43 percent of its incoming freshmen would be Asian-American. The true figure that year was 18.6 percent. But the university didn't act on these results or make them public.
  • A plaintiff-chosen expert analyzed six years of admissions data and found admissions officers consistently scored Asians lower on what Harvard calls "personal" measures, such as: "positive personality," "likability ... helpfulness, courage, [and] kindness," and being "widely respected." When it came to academic measures like GPA and test scores, by contrast, Asian applicants scored the highest.

Asian-Americans in New York City public schools

Also in June, New York City's mayor, Bill de Blasio, proposed changes to the admissions policies at the city's specialized public high schools. Enrollment at this small group of elite schools, including Stuyvesant High School and the Bronx High School of Science, looks very different from the city as a whole, with Asian-Americans making up the majority of students.

The mayor proposed replacing the high schools' admissions test with a combination of class rank and state test scores. This move would require the state legislature's approval, which is judged unlikely. So de Blasio will make a smaller tweak on his own by setting aside more seats for low-income students who score just below the cutoff.

The changes, just like the Harvard suit, spotlight how affirmative action policies affect Asian-Americans. Some in the city's Asian-American community accused the mayor of "pitting minority against minority."

On the other hand, Stuyvesant's 2018 valedictorian, Matteo Wong, 17, whose father emigrated from China and his mother from Italy, used his graduation speech in June to speak in favor of the proposed changes.

"Our student body blows me away," he said. "But I also believe the same caliber students can be found elsewhere, if we would only look through a different lens."

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