Admissions Research

Report: Most Common Diversity Practice Targets Underserved Students to Apply

The topic of how to achieve diversity in higher education is evergreen. Sometime during its 2015-2016 term the Supreme Court will be revisiting the Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin case, in which a white woman accused the school of discriminating against her on the basis of her race. (An earlier iteration of the case decided in 2013 involved two women, one of whom has since withdrawn from the suit.)

Against that background, a new research project has examined the diversity strategies employed at 338 non-profit four-year institutions. Researchers at the American Council on Education's (ACE) Center for Policy Research and Strategy (CPRS) found that six out of 10 of the "most selective" institutions consider race in admissions. Selectivity was characterized as those schools that admitted 40 percent or fewer applicants. That count goes down as the percentage of applicants accepted goes up. Only 13 percent of institutions that accept between 81 and 100 percent of applicants use race as a consideration.

The report, co-authored by Pearson's Center for College & Career Readiness and the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), focused on three key findings.

Those diversity practices that are most widely used are also the ones that don't get much attention. For example, three of the five most common techniques to support diversity involve student outreach and recruitment:

  • Targeted efforts to encourage racial or ethnic minority students to apply (78 percent of respondents use this tactic);
  • Enhanced recruitment and additional consideration for community college transfers (76 percent of institutions do this); and
  • Targeted recruitment and outreach to encourage low-income and/or first-generation students to apply (71 percent of institutions pursue this).

The least widely used tactics (which often get the most attention) include:

  • Reducing emphasis on legacy admissions (24 percent);
  • Test-optional admissions (16 percent); and
  • Percentage plans (13 percent).

The researchers encouraged policymakers, the press and other researchers to realign their attention to better reflect the most widely used strategies.

The pursuit of racial and ethnic diversity isn't an either-or. It's a "both and" proposition. According to the researchers, institutions that consider race in admissions decisions use other race-conscious and race-neutral diversity strategies more often and find them more effective than institutions that use race-neutral strategies alone. "Race-conscious and race-neutral approaches can and do coexist and are often used outside of the admissions decision," the authors noted.

Among the most widely used and effective diversity strategies at institutions that consider race are these:

  • Targeted recruitment and yield initiatives to encourage racial and ethnic minority students as well as low-income and first-generation students to apply and enroll;
  • The use of "bridge" or summer enrichment programs for admitted students; and
  • Targeted scholarships and financial aid awards for disadvantaged students.

Other approaches that aren't as widely used but are still perceived as effective by most institutions that use them include test-optional admissions, a reduced emphasis on SAT and ACT scores, and provisional or conditional admission.

Changes based on the 2013 Fisher court decision are still evolving. But the overall impression is that changes to diversity practices have been modest among those admission offices that currently consider race in their admissions decisions. Some have placed increased importance on the recruitment of community college transfers and students from low-income backgrounds.

In 2013 the Court upheld an earlier circuit court decision that agreed with the legality of the university's admission policy. Regarding that decision, nearly nine out of 10 respondents (88 percent) said they were familiar or very familiar with the requirements and implications of the ruling.

The researchers stated that coverage institutions "are hungry for research and guidance in the Fisher context." Those were prioritized by respondents this way:

  • 58 percent would like to see more research on the educational impact of campus diversity;
  • 54 percent would like research and guidance on what constitutes a "critical mass" of diverse students within their institutional context and how to achieve it; and
  • 42 percent would like research on the diversity effects of admissions strategies where race-conscious admissions practices are prohibited.

"One of the challenges for American higher education in the wake of the Fisher decision has been the lack of effective exchange of research, data and plans," said co-author Gary Orfield, a professor and co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. "Advancing equal educational opportunity requires sharing lessons learned in pursuit of promising diversity strategies. The story of affirmative action law and policy is still unfolding and researchers must respond to the needs of institutions. Our data show how the more selective institutions, of which 60 percent consider race in admissions, need additional research and guidance on critical mass."

The report is publicly available on the ACE site here.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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