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Race-based college admissions are now banned, but Texas schools still have ways to ensure campuses are diverse

By Rebecca Schneid, The Texas Tribune

Race-based college admissions are now banned, but Texas schools still have ways to ensure campuses are diverse” 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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Within hours of the U.S. Supreme Court declaring that it’s unconstitutional to consider race in college admissions, the three Texas universities most impacted by the ruling vowed that diversifying their student bodies will remain a top priority. Now the question is how to make it happen.

An admissions process that takes overall diversity into account is still achievable, and race is not the only factor that can be used to enroll students with an array of backgrounds, according to Lilian Garces, an educational leadership and policy professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

“I think it’s really important to remember what the court decision actually says. It says that colleges still have the legal ability to consider how race affects [a college applicant’s] life,” Garces said. “There’s always been other ways to maintain diversity without using race, so those efforts will continue.”

Texas has struggled to diversify its universities ever since the state banned affirmative action more than two decades ago. A 2021 Texas Demographics Center report on demographic trends in higher education does not show huge gaps in race and ethnicity, but when historically Black colleges and other universities focused on underserved populations are removed from the data, large racial and ethnic gaps can be seen, especially at the state’s private and flagship research institutions.

The report also shows that in 2019 there were wide gaps in educational levels by race and ethnicity for adults who are 25 years or older: 39.4% of non-Hispanic white Texans had a bachelor’s degree or above, compared to 16.1% of Hispanic Texans and 25.7% of Black Texans. These numbers also point to issues in retaining students of color throughout their college years.

To mitigate the impact of the state’s affirmative action ban, the Texas Legislature created The Top 10% Rule, which allows automatic admission to most Texas public universities if a student graduates in the top 10% of their high school class. The idea was to increase the diversity of universities’ student populations by pulling candidates from high schools across the state. (UT-Austin is only required to accept high school students in the top 6% of their graduating classes.)

But Vanessa Sansone, an assistant education professor at UT at San Antonio, said The Top 10% Rule cannot be overly relied upon.

“​​Higher education scholars have researched this and found that with this policy, diversity has not increased here in Texas, particularly in our highly selective research flagship schools,” Sansone said.

Experts in higher education say there’s no silver bullet to ensure a university admits a wide range of students, but there are still ways to meet such goals, even after the court’s ruling. Elizabeth Bell, an assistant professor at UT-Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs, said Texas schools who’ve expressed that they value diversity will need to employ a number of tactics to “put their money where their mouth is.”

A few hours after the Supreme Court decision, President Joe Biden recommended that colleges promote diversity by considering potential students’ hometowns and the “financial means of a student or their family” when reviewing their applications. But income and geographic location cannot be a proxy for race, Sansone said. Making sure universities’ student bodies reflect the state’s overall demographics will require multiple other strategies.

Here are some tactics experts say Texas colleges can implement to make their student bodies more representative of the state’s overall population.

Targeted recruitment  

Bell, the UT public affairs assistant professor, pointed to universities in California as examples of how to promote a diverse student body without considering race in admissions processes. Affirmative action has been outlawed in the state since 1996.

Bell said Texas schools could emulate the University of California at Berkeley’s targeted recruitment programs in which college counselors target underserved communities and help connect kids of all backgrounds with the resources they need to complete their college applications.

“The recruitment piece is important in [Texas] because it’s something that hasn’t been leveraged to the fullest,” Sansone said. “We know there are geographic locations that have no college counselors.”

Eliminate legacy admissions 

Many advocates for helping close diversity gaps in universities’ student bodies have called for elite institutions to eliminate “legacy” admissions — the practice of prioritizing the admission of alumni’s children. Since last month’s Supreme Court decision, the call for eliminating legacy admissions has grown: a Boston nonprofit, Lawyers for Civil Rights, has already filed a lawsuit on behalf of multiple Black and Latino community groups to eliminate Harvard’s legacy admissions. The nonprofit’s argument is that Harvard’s legacy admissions give an unfair advantage to white students: nearly 70% of Harvard’s donor-related and legacy applicants are white.

“No student has a birthright to a specific college,” Bell said. “If we eliminate legacy admissions, that opens up space for so many different kinds of students.”

This is a relevant issue at private universities in Texas like SMU, Rice and TCU, which do still consider legacy status. Bell anticipates it will be financially difficult for schools to eliminate legacy admissions. But, she said, if the courts eventually rule against them, “these schools will have no choice.”

Eliminate test requirements 

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, nearly all Texas public universities made it optional for applicants to submit their SAT or ACT scores. Though some universities saw no change in diversity, others saw drastic differences. In fall 2021, The University of Texas at Arlington increased the number of Black students in its freshman class by almost 34%, from 519 to 694. The number of Black freshmen at Texas State University increased by 6%.

After the test-optional shift, many schools saw that for low-income students, standardized tests are just another barrier to higher education, especially if they came from high schools that didn’t emphasize SAT or ACT preparation.

The American Educational Research Journal found that test-optional policies were associated with a 10% to 12% increase in first-time students from underrepresented racial and ethnic backgrounds in nearly 100 private institutions.

“We know for a fact that these tests are fundamentally inequitable, so this is low-hanging fruit for how to increase racial diversity,” Bell said.

Consider geography and socioeconomic status 

Garces believes that other factors in a student’s life — such as geographic location, whether they went to public or private school and their family’s income — can still be considered, even if they aren’t perfect proxies for racial or ethnic diversity.

““I think the court decision could really open up the door to considering other factors,” Garces said.

Sansone said socioeconomic status and geographic location cannot be placeholders for race-conscious admissions. For one, looking at where a student lives doesn’t necessarily get to any race-specific obstacles they’ve faced.

“Schools can consider policies on serving rural areas, but like any policy, you need to think about your goal,” Sansone said. “If the goal is race-equity, geography is not the same thing.”

Increase cultural competency and community engagement 

For Sansone, it is one thing for schools to admit students of color, but it’s another to ensure they graduate. She believes that schools should be looking at programs already used at historically Black colleges and other universities where most students are people of color. She said orientations need to target the needs of first-generation students, low-income students and students of all cultural backgrounds, so that those who do not have a family with a history of college attendance are given the tools they need to succeed.

As an example, she pointed to the work of the University of Texas at San Antonio’s La Familia program, which offers parents of high school students a six-week workshop covering college course requirements, financial aid options, digital literacy and civic leadership. Upon successfully completing the program, parents can earn up to $1,000 in a one-time institutional scholarship for their student.

She also advocates for increased funding for physical spaces — like Muslim and Black student union buildings — where students from historically underrepresented groups can connect around identity and culture. This would increase belonging among students of color at predominantly white institutions, she said. Schools whose students are mostly people of color are “already doing amazing work” on this front, she added.

“We just need to take their lead,” Sansone said.

Disclosure: University of Texas – Arlington, University of Texas at Austin, University of Texas at Austin – LBJ School of Public Affairs and University of Texas at San Antonio 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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