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As race-neutral college admissions begin, Texas counselors work to convince students of color they still belong

By Alexa Ura and Kate McGee, The Texas Tribune

As race-neutral college admissions begin, Texas counselors work to convince students of color they still belong” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Brown. Tufts. The University of Southern California.

Heading into her senior year, Sydney Vallair had zeroed in on her top choices and felt “ahead of the game” when it came to applying for college.

The 17-year-old spent her junior year learning the ins and outs of the application process and how she could best position herself to leave southwest Houston for a top-tier university. With the help of EMERGE, a nonprofit that works to get high-performing students from underserved communities to selective schools, she went on campus tours and met with college students with similar backgrounds. Her personal statement was basically finished, she scored high on multiple Advanced Placement tests, and she racked up extracurriculars inside and outside of school.

But when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision declaring the use of race in college admissions as unconstitutional, her confidence was initially shaken.

“Affirmative action is very important for me as a Black student,” Vallair said. The ruling, however, left her confused about how it would “affect not only my admission process but those after me.”

The college application process has always been a stressful and opaque process, especially for students from underrepresented backgrounds eyeing top schools. Thursday’s decision by the high court has thrown in whole new layers of uncertainty. As colleges and universities rethink their approaches to admissions, students of color are having to rethink everything from the subjects of their essays to the schools they’re targeting.

Meanwhile, the Texas counselors helping them say they must double down on their messages of encouragement. One thing remains unchanged, they’re telling students: These schools still want you.

It’s an effort that will be particularly crucial in a state like Texas, where two-thirds of public school students are Latino or Black.

“Colleges are still looking for you guys,” Aisosa Ede-Osifo, a counselor through the nonprofit Academic Success Program who is embedded at a high school in Dallas, said she is telling her students. “Even if the politics of this country might seem otherwise or say otherwise, colleges still need to cultivate an environment where you can exchange ideas from people who are different from themselves.”

On Thursday, the court ruled along ideological lines in two cases that the methods that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Harvard University use to consider race in admissions violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, effectively ending affirmative action along racial lines at public and private universities across the country.

In Texas, the decision clearly impacts private universities and the University of Texas at Austin, the only public university to consider race in undergraduate admissions. But it will also affect the many elite schools across the country that look to the state’s big cities and border regions to attract students of different races and backgrounds.

In the Supreme Court opinion handed down Thursday, Chief Justice John Roberts said a “student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual — not on the basis of race.” But he added that the ruling should not prohibit schools from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected their life, positively or negatively.

The decision — at least in the immediate aftermath — has already caused some students to question how much of their lived experiences they should bring into their applications.

On Friday, Keira Bradley was struggling with how to console herself.

Also part of EMERGE’s college prep program, the 16-year-old was going over the draft of her personal statement that focused entirely on her identity as a Black girl. Describing the experience of a tough hike up a Wyoming mountain, she wrote about navigating life at a predominantly white school before transitioning back to classrooms with other Black and Latino students.

Struggling with the elevation change and the steepness of her climb, she described finally looking out at what she said was a beautiful view.

“I think for my life, I’m just waiting for the moment where I can overlook the mountains again in the world,” said Bradley, who wants to pursue a career as a psychologist for the military.

Now, she’s rethinking the statement altogether.

The court’s decision, experts said, makes room only for more flattened views on race in college admissions without acknowledging the systemic ways in which students’ lives are affected by racism.

“It creates an idea of the world where structural racism doesn’t exist and we’re only focusing on interpersonal racism,” said Dominique Baker, a higher education policy expert at Southern Methodist University. “Even if a student has never been called a racial slur to their face, we still have a country that’s been organized in order to disadvantage that student through our housing, throughout our health care, through our education systems. So it’s inappropriate because it is sort of doing the work of trying to make a lot of the ways racism works in our country [invisible].”

Ede-Osifo said while she’s uncomfortable with the idea of asking students to “trauma dump” the darkest parts of their lives into their college applications, she also thinks it’s important to encourage students to share their lived experiences in their applications, even if they aren’t positive.

She points to one of her students who just finished her first year at Harvard University.

“It’s important for her to tell her story to the students of Harvard, who come from the northeast, who’ve never had to struggle or wonder where the electricity bill money’s going to come from, wonder whether their parents are going back to Mexico,” she said. “I don’t necessarily think we’re exploiting but rather telling the truth that needs to be heard.”

Those types of stories are not uncommon among students in Texas public schools, in which the majority of students today are Latino and considered economically disadvantaged. School resources are far from equitable — even as school districts across the state work to increase opportunities for students. The state’s education system was built on a legacy of disparities and long-winding fights for equity. And racial integration and school funding increases have generally come when the courts forced the state’s hand.

This has resulted in vast educational gaps between students of color and white students, often within the same school district or campus. Black and Latino students have remained more likely to read below grade level. Trailing white students through graduation, many of them leave the public education system unprepared to succeed in college.

Their families, meanwhile, are far more likely to live in poverty and often lack the higher levels of education to help them navigate school and the college application process.

These disparities often make it crucial for high-performing students from lower-income families to look to selective universities out of state — the institutions whose admissions policies will most likely be affected by the court’s decision — from which they typically obtain more generous financial aid packages.

But Thursday’s ruling, EMERGE CEO Anastasia Lindo Anderson said, could also push colleges interested in diversity to enact more holistic reviews of prospective students, which could benefit students from underrepresented backgrounds. That could mean further cementing the move away from factors like standardized test scores. It might also present an opportunity for increased partnerships between elite universities and local organizations working with students who already qualify for their schools but simply need the tools to get through the admissions process.

“I do understand that this is a hard time for students, but I think that what students will hear from their counselors and college access organizations like EMERGE is that the colleges want you there,” Lindo Anderson said. “They have signaled to us they are going to continue to figure out how to bring a student body that reflects our nation.”

For students unable to consider schools out of state, the question is whether Texas will respond to the new challenge — and whether schools that claim to value diversity have the courage to continue those efforts in a state that has become hostile to efforts that explicitly try to help students of color, LGBTQ+ students and faculty of color.

Al Kauffman, a longtime civil rights litigator, recalled the drastic drop in Black and Latino enrollment after opponents of race-conscious admissions saw a temporary legal victory in 1996 that briefly banned state universities from considering race.

In response, Latino lawmakers and activists pitched what’s known as the Top 10% Plan.

Under the rule, which was adopted by the Legislature, Texas high school students who graduate in the top 10% of their class are guaranteed admission to the state’s public universities. Because Texas high schools remained so segregated, they reasoned, automatically pulling in students from schools with varying racial and ethnic compositions — as well as socioeconomic composition — would help build diversity on college campuses.

Outside of the Top 10% Plan, Texas universities largely accept students through a holistic review process that considers a multitude of factors in their applications, including grade point average, personal essays, extracurricular activities, letters of recommendation and standardized test scores, if required. They often consider certain circumstances about a student’s life that put their academic achievements in better context. That could include anything from a student’s socioeconomic status, family responsibilities or whether they are the first in their family to apply to college, to the languages spoken at home or personal challenges.

But at UT-Austin, Black and Hispanic students make up only about 30% of the student population, half the share that they represent in K-12 schools. At Texas A&M University, which never reinstituted affirmative action after the 1996 ruling, the share is even lower.

Universities have room to make changes in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling, namely by reducing their emphasis on factors like standardized test scores that often reflect longtime disparities, said Kauffman, who is now a law professor at St. Mary’s University.

“There’s no doubt this decision is going to make it harder to have a diverse student population, but I don’t think it’s going to make it impossible,” Kauffman said, noting that universities can still consider how individual students say they’ve been affected by race. “I think they’re just going to have to set policies to more likely admit a diverse student body by restructuring admission policies, which is within their power.”

Data shows that states that have banned race in admissions saw immediate drops in the number of students of color applying and enrolling. Large, selective public universities in California and Florida both saw Black student enrollment decrease following bans on affirmative action in college admissions.

A Washington Post analysis found that schools that are less selective get more diverse in the wake of bans on the use of race in college admissions. This might not be good for students of color, however, because selective schools tend to have more resources to support students through graduation. UT-Austin has an 82% eight-year graduation rate and access to an endowment worth more than $40 billion. Texas Southern University, a historically Black public school in Houston, has an endowment of less than $100 million and a 33% graduation rate.

However, the politics for broader change in Texas are different today than in 1996. This year, Texas lawmakers banned diversity, equity and inclusion offices — training and programs that support underrepresented groups on campus specifically related to race, gender and sexual orientation — after critics contended these offices pushed left-wing ideology onto students and valued social justice rather than merit on the college campus.

While there could be opportunities to continue programs for specific groups like first-generation college students or low-income students, higher education experts fear the backlash to overt efforts to build diverse, inclusive environments on campus will make schools hesitant to support and sustain such programs and will deter students from enrolling. Ede-Osifo, the college counselor in Dallas, said many of her students of color want to leave Texas to attend college.

“Whether or not they fully understand what’s happening with the politics of Texas, they do understand that the Texas state government is not wanting students to be at those institutions [and] not wanting to support Black and brown students at Texas public institutions,” Ede-Osifo said.

At Aldine Independent School District in the Houston area, Charlotte Davis, who retired last year as assistant superintendent of student support services, said counselors often worked with students who felt defeated by the prospect of considering college even before they began filling out admissions applications.

Working in a district where roughly 90% of students are considered economically disadvantaged — 30 percentage points higher than the statewide figure — Davis said she saw firsthand the importance of giving students who lacked the same opportunities or resources as others even “that little edge.”

“We’re in a political climate that hasn’t communicated that we care about you being a Black or brown student,” Davis said. “You have to encourage students to do their best … to use this as an opportunity to show I am good enough, I am smart enough. That I can do it.”

Disclosure: Southern Methodist University, Texas A&M University, Texas Southern University and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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