The U.S. Supreme Court roiled the higher education community by agreeing to hear cases against the race-conscious admissions policies at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, with arguments likely to come in the fall. Significant resources and attention will now go toward defending these policies and reminding the Court of several decades of its precedent that permits institutions to consider race as one factor in the pursuit of diversity goals.
Yet, even if Harvard and UNC prevail, we have much work to do. As higher education defends these longstanding admissions practices, it is increasingly aware that this status quo has been insufficient at promoting racial equity. The good news is that, just before the Supreme Court took up the case, strong signals came from key membership organizations that they wanted to think differently and more systemically about the pursuit of equity through enrollment.
The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) and National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) came to Lumina in the summer of 2020, seeking an opportunity to leverage the moment where dramatic change felt more possible than ever before. Over the past 18 months, informed by a thought leadership panel and diverse students, these organizations have done deep introspection about the processes and policies their members oversee.
I was hopeful the effort could break some new ground, but pleased—surprised, even—to see the boldness of the final product, Toward a More Equitable Future for Postsecondary Access. The report urges the field “to question the assumptions about our work, having witnessed the insidious efforts of racism in all of society’s systems.” In so doing, they may open a new path forward.
After all, changing systems requires the participation of those who run them. But, because they know how things work and why things are the way they are, it can be difficult for those inside to imagine a scenario where the status quo doesn’t continue. I am pleased to see this dynamic so common in higher education is starting to change, especially as more organizations and stakeholders take their commitments to racial equity and justice seriously.
Several elements struck me as new or different from what I’ve heard before.
First, the report doesn’t attempt to lay out a complete agenda of solutions that readers only need to implement to effect change. NACAC and NASFAA specifically acknowledges that “many thousands of perspectives are needed to address systemic racism” and do not claim to have expertise or perspective that should outweigh others not represented in the findings. In fact, the report cites several third-party studies that have been critical of admissions and financial aid.
Higher education must serve all students of color and highlight the need to center Black students in any future efforts, NACAC and NASFAA wrote, while acknowledging the deep roots of racism in America and the impact on today’s admissions and financial aid systems. For example, although overall International Baccalaureate course availability increased dramatically since the 1990s, there was little change in the number of Black students attending schools with IB programming. It also shows data confirming that Black and Hispanic and Latino students have less access to high-level math and science courses. The report calls for higher education to “radically rethink the criteria upon which we make admission and financial aid decisions and to minimize the steps students need to take outside of their K12 experience.”
The report grapples with the special access barriers erected for older students, perhaps for the first time in a major publication from the admissions and financial aid community. As one thought leadership panel participant observed, “We still require [adult students] to fit in this very traditional box, even though we say that we want nontraditional students to be a part of higher education spaces.” It’s refreshing to see adult learners—particularly those from communities of color—receive attention in a general publication on college access, a topic typically limited to high school students.
These themes may be standards for civil rights organizations, student advocates, and higher education scholars, but we do not usually hear them from national membership organizations of higher education professionals.
For many years, those focused on equity, diversity, and inclusion in college access have taken as a given that “the system is the system.” In fact, the system has had to be defended repeatedly in court when race-conscious policies were challenged. So most new ideas amounted to tinkering with legacy practices. Dramatic change focused on what works best for those students who have been underserved, ignored, or sidelined by the traditional system seemed out of reach. That is, until the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd caused many to rethink their assumptions about what was wrong with the system and what might be possible in the future.
This report can serve as evidence that the attention to equity in the summer of 2020 was not a passing phase. With new allies in the pursuit of systemic change, I’m hopeful that we can meet the challenge to keep moving forward—and not limit our sights to the stakes set by a Supreme Court case.
Terri Taylor, J.D., is strategy director for innovation and discovery at Lumina Foundation.