Washington has barred its public universities and colleges from using race in admissions for a quarter century. But the U.S. Supreme Court’s Thursday decision gutting race-conscious admissions policies will still affect thousands of students here.
The state’s private colleges, which were exempt from the state law banning government agencies from giving preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race, are now comparing their admissions processes with the court’s ruling against Harvard and the University of North Carolina’s use of affirmative action.
The decision does not ban schools from considering race in the admissions, but raises the legal bar so high that many universities nationwide are expected to set aside affirmative action entirely.
Several private colleges consider race among other factors in what they call a “holistic” admissions process. On Thursday, leaders at Seattle University, the University of Puget Sound, Gonzaga University and Whitman College pledged their commitment to building diverse student populations within the confines of the ruling. Gonzaga and Seattle University both cited their status as Jesuit Catholic universities as a compelling reason for their practices.
“Today’s decision leaves unanswered important and unsettled questions about how the court’s prohibition … interacts with our constitutional right to the free exercise and expression of our Jesuit Catholic values,” said Seattle University President Eduardo Peñalver.
Students of color make up a little under half of the enrollment at Seattle University, with Black and Latino students comprising 8% and 13% of the population respectively.
Experts say the ruling will have a chilling effect on applications from students of color, compounding the state’s already low college-going numbers. Universities nationwide are also dealing with dwindling enrollment worsened by the pandemic.
Washington state’s public universities experienced that chilling effect temporarily after voters passed Initiative 200, the affirmative action ban, in 1998. The following year, the number of Black freshmen at public universities dropped by 13%, Hispanic students by 10% and Native American students by nearly 19%, according to a study from researchers at the University of California, Irvine, and the University of Washington. (The law also played a role in a legal case that eventually brought down a long-standing integration policy at Seattle Public Schools.)
The message is that “these Black students, Hispanic students, Pacific islander students — they are taking away seats from otherwise deserving and qualified white students. The message is that white people are always deserving,” said Deirdre Bowen, a Seattle University law professor who studies affirmative action.
Bowen’s research was cited in a brief included in the Harvard case to show the benefits of affirmative action. Her study showed Black students reported more positive experiences and less discrimination on college campuses with an affirmative action policy compared to those without the policy.
A few years after Washington’s affirmative action ban passed, the numbers rebounded. This is likely because affirmative action makes the most difference for admissions at elite colleges, the researchers contended. None of the private colleges in the state is considered extremely selective — they all admit half or more of their applicant pool.
What makes the most difference at schools that accept a high percentage of applicants, the study says, is working on diversifying the applicant pool.
In the absence of a race-conscious policy, that’s exactly where the state’s public universities have focused their efforts.
“I often liken what we do to being academic archaeologists,” said Andrew Brewick, director of admissions at Washington State University. “We dig through high school transcripts as if they are artifacts.”
The public universities have focused on making the decision to apply and attend college easier for low-income students. All but one of the state’s six public four-year schools participate in the state’s guaranteed admission program, a data-sharing agreement with more than 60 school districts. The colleges send letters to students guaranteeing admission if they have a 3.0 GPA or higher at the end of their junior year, and are on track to complete a compilation of academic standards.
Brewick said WSU also saw an increase in the diversity of applicants when it became a part of the Common App last year, which allows students to submit applications to several universities at once. But he did not disclose how much those numbers changed.
The UW, the most selective of the state’s public universities, is not in the guaranteed admission program. That’s because the majority of applicants end up having high GPAs, and so admitting everyone who qualified would pose a space issue, said Paul Seegert, director of admissions at the UW.
The university focuses on recruiting, and also grants higher priority to applicants who are from Washington state, who are more racially and economically diverse than nonresident applicants, Seegert said.
The College Success Foundation, a nonprofit that sends counselors to high schools all over the state, also focuses on supporting students from high school until college graduation. They help students fill in financial aid forms, think about the schools they want to attend and navigate college when they get there. It formed partly in response to the anti-affirmative action law, in recognition that not enough students of color were applying or enrolling in higher education.
The organization announced a new scholarship program Thursday in recognition of the ruling.
As private schools in the state rethink their processes, Bowen says the Court’s ruling hasn’t closed the door on affirmative action entirely. The court ruled against Harvard and North Carolina because they did not demonstrate that their affirmative action policies had meaningful educational benefits without disadvantaging students of other races in the process.
Universities should arm themselves with data and research to show their policies have meaningful benefits, said Bowen. They may also consider adopting a policy similar to the University of Texas, which successfully defended its admission standards in a case decided by the court in 2016. There, the university argued that it sought to achieve a “critical mass” of a particular racial or ethnic group to build a diverse student body. That is, the university was seeking to promote diversity within demographic groups.
It’s important to note, Bowen said, that the court did not reject “critical mass” diversity in this latest ruling — and in fact criticized Harvard and UNC for not knowing about critical mass.
There are still ways for race to enter a racially neutral process. Students might mention their racial identities in their essays or reveal it in their extracurricular activities. It’s very hard for any law or ruling to intercede in how a decision is influenced by that information.
“In any law that tries to stop any policy or way of behaving, the actors that have been in the institutions will engage in informal adaptation. They will engage in off-the-book stuff,” Bowen said.
In other words, colleges might be accounting for race, but not explicitly saying so. The Supreme Court ruling seems to acknowledge this gray area.
“Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority decision.