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Affirmative Action Is Over. Should Applicants Still Mention Their Race?

Colleges and universities across the country are scrambling to find legal means of maintaining the levels of diversity they would like to see. Though barred from actively using race as a factor, they will still “see” race in signifiers such as name, ZIP code and, perhaps most notable, what students say about themselves in their essays. But this also means that this year’s class of high school seniors — the first to apply under the affirmative-action ban — must read the signals sent by colleges about how to articulate their case for admission correctly and effectively. They are living in a swirl of uncertainty, confusion and misinformation about an admissions process that has suddenly been made more opaque and bewildering. Rather than clarifying the role of race in the application process, the court has instead created a new burden for students: They must now decide whether, and how, to make race a part of their pitch for admission.

In charting their new course, colleges and universities are looking to a key passage in Chief Justice John Roberts’s opinion, in which he explains how to treat race when it inevitably comes up in students’ applications. “Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration or otherwise,” he wrote. But “universities may not simply establish through application essays or other means the regime we hold unlawful today.” He continued: “A benefit to a student who overcame racial discrimination, for example, must be tied to that student’s courage and determination. Or a benefit to a student whose heritage or culture motivated him or her to assume a leadership role or attain a particular goal must be tied to that student’s unique ability to contribute to the university. In other words, the student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual — not on the basis of race.”

“I think people are scratching their heads wondering, well, what did Justice Roberts mean by that exactly, and how is it going to be tested?” Jeff Brenzel, a former dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale, told me. Brenzel is currently a trustee at Morehouse College, where he is helping its board work through how the ruling will affect admissions. “How is it going to be interpreted at the individual school level? I think that’s a matter of tremendous uncertainty.” The Biden administration, which finds itself in the position of enforcing a decision it dislikes, recently released a letter trying to help parse Roberts’s position: Schools cannot give an automatic boost to students of a particular race, it read, but they “remain free to consider any quality or characteristic of a student” even if that quality or characteristic is tied to a life experience shaped by the student’s race.

Two and a half weeks after the ruling, I asked Matthew McGann, the head of admissions at Amherst College, how he would apply Roberts’s reasoning to a particular example: If an applicant’s extracurriculars include the Black Student Union, how would that have been considered before and after the ruling? “That cannot be put in the context of” — he stopped himself, pausing for 10 seconds. “I think the — so understanding a student’s participation in an activity through a lens of racial status is something that at the very least cannot be as easily done anymore. We are still working on our training and guideline language on how the admissions staff should approach these questions.” McGann told me he is confident that his staff will be able to sort this out before reading applications this fall.

Even as colleges are still figuring out what is legal or illegal, they are taking steps toward compliance. As of August, at least 20 selective schools, including several in the Ivy League, had introduced new supplemental-essay prompt language for this application cycle that adheres closely to the ruling and seems to guide students along the tightrope that Roberts has laid out for them. These new essay questions direct students to talk about their identity in terms of their lived “experiences” and ask them to tie it to “unique contributions” to their campus — all language drawn from Roberts’s passage. In essence, the colleges are asking students to respond indirectly to Roberts and provide the kind of answers that Roberts himself would deem permissible considerations of racial identity. These supplemental prompts represent a new kind of diversity essay question, replacing the old kind that relied on a previous Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action.

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