The Supreme Court of the United States ruled last week that race-related admissions practices at the University of North Carolina and Harvard violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and are therefore unconstitutional. The Court did not deny the educational benefits of a diverse student body—to train future leaders, to prepare students to live in a pluralistic society, to broaden understanding, to foster innovation—which it actually deemed “commendable.” Yet, it concluded that universities are limited in pursuing those goals through admissions practices due to the strict scrutiny test the Court applies to any race-based exceptions to the Equal Protection Clause.
At Georgia Tech, race or ethnicity is not a determining factor in admissions. Our current application, however, does give applicants the option of disclosing certain racial and ethnic information as part of several factors considered in a holistic evaluation, and secondary to academic performance. We will remove that option going forward in compliance with the Court’s ruling, while we continue to work to remove barriers to access and success, and build a community where students of all backgrounds feel welcome and can learn and grow.
Constitutional scholars will dissect the Court’s legal arguments for years. But everyone who cares about higher education in America would benefit from reading the entire ruling (all 237 pages), including concurring and dissenting opinions. The document delves into the historic and social context of race in American life and in higher education and thoroughly highlights the complexity of these issues. The range of views among the Justices in some way reflects American public opinion. A poll conducted by my former colleagues at George Mason University’s Schar School for the Washington Post last year found that almost two-thirds of Americans believed that increasing the racial diversity of college campuses is a good thing. It also found that a similar percentage favored the Supreme Court banning colleges and universities from considering a student’s race when making decisions about admissions.
So, how do we achieve both goals? How do we broaden access and build a diverse student body without letting applicants tell us what their background is?
The Court notes that universities are not prohibited “from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected the applicant’s life, be it through discrimination, inspiration or otherwise” (Roberts, Opinion of the Court, page 39). But universities may not use an application’s essay to simply determine the applicant’s racial or ethnic background. In other words, race per se must be kept out of the admissions process.
There is much however that can be done outside of the admission process to expand access. At Georgia Tech, for example, we work with school systems across our state to improve science and technology education for all students and to inspire students of all backgrounds to consider careers in those fields; we run camps that familiarize students with engineering, computing, and science; we provide direct admission to valedictorians and salutatorians of every high school of a certain size in the state; we offer pathway programs for students from other universities who want to transfer here and dual degree options in partnership with other universities (including HBCUs); and we raise private funds to provide scholarships to students in financial need. None of these programs are based on race or ethnicity, yet they have a positive impact in increasing diversity of our student body along many important dimensions, including race.
Over the last decade, we have made progress in the number of Black students we attract (9% of the incoming freshman class this past year), women (40%), students from rural areas (12%), first-generation students whose parents did not graduate from college (16%), and other groups. Our improvements in some of these categories are the more notable when we consider that they happened while reaching new records in selectivity, SAT/ACT scores, and high school GPA and rank while growing class sizes and delivering record-level retention and graduation rates. Indeed, we are now one of the most selective public universities in the nation, and we post one of the highest six-year graduation rates. In other words, we have become bigger and stronger academically, and more diverse at the same time.
The area where we have struggled the most is in attracting students from low-income families who qualify for Federal need-based financial aid (Pell grants), the proportion of whom has declined from more than 20% of the incoming freshman class a decade ago to 12% this past year. This is one of the reasons why need-based scholarships are the top priority in our ongoing fundraising campaign.
We are a public university seeking excellence in everything we do, committed to building a welcoming academic community where people of all backgrounds have the opportunity to learn and grow, where diversity of perspectives and ideas, and the freedom to express those ideas, is nurtured in support of knowledge creation and innovation. While the tools we can work with may change from time to time, our mission and values remain the same.