By Faith Miller
President Donald Trump’s administration has rescinded Barack Obama’s higher-ed admissions policy encouraging the use of race as a factor in college admissions, a practice also known as affirmative action. But Colorado Springs’ public and private colleges and universities aren’t budging on diversity.
The rescinded memorandum was among 24 documents retracted by Attorney General Jeff Sessions on July 3 in an effort to “put an end to unnecessary or improper rulemaking.” The memo had outlined approaches colleges could take to increase diversity, including race-based admissions.
“Interacting with students who have different perspectives and life experiences can raise the level of academic and social discourse both inside and outside the classroom,” the document points out.
By rescinding the policy, along with similar guidance for K-12 schools, the Department of Justice appears to be taking a stance similar to that of the George W. Bush administration, which encouraged schools to use “race-neutral” methods in determining placement.
The Supreme Court has largely upheld affirmative action at public universities and colleges, most recently with the 2016 Fisher v. University of Texas decision. In that case, the court voted 4-3 against Abigail Fisher, a white woman who was refused admission to UT. Her lawyers argued that the University of Texas (which first admits students in the top 10 percent of their graduating class, then includes race as a factor for the remaining spots) violated the Constitution. The Supreme Court ruled the school’s policy was narrowly tailored to serve a compelling interest and was therefore defensible.
However, some worry that changes on the court could mean upcoming affirmative-action cases will play out differently.
Anthony Kennedy, a sometimes-moderate justice considered the “swing vote” on many landmark cases, including the Fisher case, recently announced his retirement. President Trump recently nominated appeals court judge Brett Kavanaugh, a conservative who may lean the other way on affirmative action.
Trump’s Department of Justice has made clear where it stands, recently backing a group suing Harvard University over its race-based admission process. The group, Students for Fair Admissions, argues that the school discriminates against Asian-American applicants. That case is scheduled for a date in U.S. District Court this fall. If it reaches the high court, affirmative action could be due for another test.
Even before Obama-era affirmative-action guidelines were put in place, Colorado universities and colleges took steps to promote diversity. The University of Colorado at Boulder has taken a proactive approach, developing an admissions system that could withstand a ban on race-based consideration if necessary.
In 2008, Colorado voters were set to vote on Amendment 46, a controversial ballot initiative that would have prohibited discrimination or preferential treatment in public employment, contracting and education. Thinking the initiative might pass, a team of researchers developed an admissions formula that could promote diversity without taking race into account. Instead, it used a number of factors — such as parents’ education level, parents’ income and neighborhood poverty — to determine a student’s socioeconomic status. If an applicant’s test scores were significantly higher than those of other applicants in her socioeconomic group, she would have a significantly better chance of being admitted.
Such a system can help level the playing field, and increase diversity, without directly factoring in race, says Matthew Gaertner, who helped develop the formula.
“If you use a socioeconomic system or class-based system that is really nuanced and really detailed,” says Gaertner, now the director of research, standards, assessment and accountability services at nonprofit research organization WestEd, headquartered in San Francisco, “then you can cushion the impact of a ban on race-based affirmative action on racial and ethnic diversity in a school.”
Because Amendment 46 was narrowly defeated, CU Boulder was able to adopt a version of their admissions formula workaround that took both race and socioeconomic status into account, which Gaertner says proved the most effective at achieving diversity. They still use that system today.
So theoretically, if a ban on affirmative action returns to the ballot — possibly as an indirect result of the administration’s new policy — a class-based system like the one Gaertner helped develop could provide schools with another path to diversity.
For now, the Trump administration’s move to no longer encourage race-based admissions won’t have any immediate impact on University of Colorado schools, Ken McConnellogue, vice president of communications for the university system, says in an emailed statement provided by the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
“The move did not create new rules, so the university continues to administer its admissions processes lawfully within the framework that the Supreme Court provided in its decisions,” McConnellogue wrote.
UCCS, unlike Boulder, doesn’t use race or socioeconomic status as factors in the admissions process, says Jared Verner, assistant director for media relations at UCCS. That’s in part because the school doesn’t have a cap on the number of students it can accept. UCCS did, however, develop a strategic plan in 2007 that outlines steps to achieve student diversity, including recruiting efforts, improving the diversity climate on campus, and designing curriculum to reflect the experience of marginalized groups.
UCCS, according to school data, had a student population that was 17 percent Hispanic/Latino, 3.7 percent black/African-American, and 3.1 percent Asian-American at the end of the spring 2018 term. CU Boulder’s population was 11 percent Hispanic/Latino, 2.5 percent black/African-American and 7.6 percent Asian-American as of fall 2017, according to its website.
For comparison, Colorado’s population is 22 percent Hispanic/Latino, 4.5 percent black/African-American and 3.4 percent Asian, U.S. Census Bureau data for 2017 shows. Out of all Colorado degree-granting postsecondary institutions, 17 percent of students enrolled in fall of 2016 were Hispanic, 7.3 percent were black and 3.6 percent were Asian, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
State universities aren’t the only higher-ed institutions striving for diversity. The Air Force Academy “has one set of admissions standards that apply to everyone,” but its class of 2022 is the most diverse group in Academy history, Lt. Col. Tracy Bunko, director of public affairs, points out in an emailed statement.
The Academy works to increase “the diversity of the applicant pool and qualified candidate pool,” Bunko says, and promotes geographic diversity through the congressional nomination process, which requires cadets to secure limited nominations from elected officials.
“Diversity is one of the truest reflections of our nation’s ideals, and part of the fabric of our military,” Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria wrote in a February editorial published by CNN. “It is crucial, not because it is in vogue, but because it makes us better, stronger and more effective as a fighting force.”
The Academy’s class of 2022 is 10 percent Hispanic, 11 percent African-American and 9.5 percent Asian, according to Academy statistics from June.
As a private school, Colorado College isn’t subject to federal guidelines on admissions, but it has considered race as a factor for decades, along with socioeconomic status and parents’ education level, says Matt Bonser, CC’s director of admission for systems, operations, and international. Bonser says he’s seen a substantial increase in representation of students of color over the last decade.
CC looks at applications holistically, rather than using a linear process of elimination where certain factors are considered before others. And Carlos Jimenez, director of admission for outreach and recruitment, adds that while race plays into CC’s admissions process, it’s not the most important factor.
“Academics, test scores, what kind of classes students are taking based on what’s available to them, that’s sort of the anchor of our process,” Jimenez says. “But if we just took the students with the best grades and test scores, we wouldn’t be able to make our objectives as enrollment managers because we want to build a talented and diverse class.”
Colorado College’s student population as of fall 2017 was 9.3 percent Hispanic/Latino, 16 percent Asian and 6.0 percent black/African-American, according to the school’s website.
Pikes Peak Community College has a unique advantage over highly selective schools such as CC when it comes to diversity. White House affirmative action policies don’t affect PPCC because it accepts all applicants, Warren Epstein, director of marketing and communication, says in an emailed statement. “We’re proud to acknowledge that PPCC is the most racially diverse public higher-ed institution in the Pikes Peak region.”
PPCC’s student population was 18 percent Hispanic, 7 percent black and 3 percent Asian in 2017, according to the school’s website.