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Students walk past the University of Texas' iconic tower, in Austin. In 2016, the Supreme Court found in favor of the university's affirmative-action admissions policy. Today, many campuses want diversity, but critics are pushing for more race-neutral decisions.
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A sticky week for college admissions as affirmative action debate heats up

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After a leaked Justice Department document, tensions roil over the use of race at top universities such as Harvard. But many other selective schools may be quietly shifting away from the practice.

The waters of the affirmative action debate – left relatively undisturbed since a Supreme Court decision upheld its constitutionality last year – were again agitated this week. 

The trigger: a leaked internal document from the Department of Justice that signaled to some that the Trump administration is devoting resources to the anti-affirmative action cause. Others say that’s an overblown reaction to an innocuous move to investigate one claim by Asian-Americans.

Today, the majority of top-tier universities maintain a strong commitment to the value of diversity and the narrow use of race in admissions to achieve that. But the steady drumbeat of criticism from those who believe society should be colorblind may have contributed to what new research has found: The percentage of competitive institutions publicly stating that they factor race into admissions has dramatically declined.

Ironically, the broad diversity argument in higher education – that it benefits everyone, including white students – has perhaps led to a decline in a focus on racial inequities, says Harvard education professor Natasha Warikoo, and “maybe it’s time to rethink this very shallow way we talk about affirmative action.”

After The New York Times reported this week on an internal document from the Department of Justice that it interpreted as indicating “a new project” to investigate race-based discrimination in admissions, the department responded by characterizing press reports as “inaccurate.” Department of Justice spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores told the Monitor in an email statement that “the posting sought volunteers to investigate one administrative complaint filed by a coalition of 64 Asian-American associations in May 2015 that the prior Administration left unresolved.” The Wall Street Journal reports that the complaint is against Harvard University.

“The Department of Justice is committed to protecting all Americans from all forms of illegal race-based discrimination,” Ms. Isgur Flores added.

Nevertheless, many civil rights advocates remain concerned that the administration will attempt to undermine the use of affirmative action and roll back progress for African-Americans and Latinos in a variety of areas ranging from education to voting rights.

“I am pretty confident that the DOJ is using the potential of Asian-American discrimination as a means to attack affirmative action,” says Ms. Warikoo, author of “The Diversity Bargain.”

She doesn’t discount the legitimacy of questions surrounding whether Asian Americans are held to higher standards than white students in some elite admissions offices. But she says it’s “a different issue from whether universities should practice affirmative action for black and Latino applicants,” in part because of the history of racial injustice toward those groups and the disparate educational and economic outcomes.

For those eager to see race and ethnicity erased in admissions decisions, however, the fact that these mattered so much in American history is precisely the reason to refuse to let them matter now.

“We should be a colorblind nation,” says Edward Blum, who leads a nonprofit that brought a case against the University of Texas at Austin all the way to the Supreme Court. The high court ruled 4-3 in favor of the university in 2016.

“Having your race as an element in your admission to a college is something that continues to polarize not only our campuses, but our nation as a whole. The sooner we get race out of the equation … the sooner we can move past this burden that we all carry around,” says Mr. Blum, who also leads Students for Fair Admissions in Arlington, Va., which is suing Harvard for allegedly discriminating against Asian-American applicants.

Americans support both points of view 

Complicating the debate is the fact that both sides can point to polls that show a majority of the American people supporting their point of view.

A recent nationally representative survey of full-time college freshmen by UCLA showed them split right down the middle, with 50.6 percent agreeing that affirmative action in admissions should be abolished. 

Among 18- to 29-year olds, a 2013 survey included in a report by the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute found that 62 percent said they hadn’t been personally affected by affirmative action in education or the workplace. Of those who had been, 12 percent said it helped them, while 24 percent said it had been to their disadvantage.

"It's a good idea, but … I have black and Hispanic friends who think others think they are only here because of race. It makes them really self-conscious," says Carrie, an Asian-American undergraduate student at Harvard University who didn’t want to give her last name. She also says the admissions process should consider the variety of national origins of Asian-American students. “The highest dropout rates are students from Southeast Asia, and they are underrepresented,” she says.

Universities that have infused into their missions a commitment to diversity can point to reams of research about the educational value of that diversity among the student body. A series of Supreme Court decisions since the 1970s has contributed to that rationale, even as it has required them to refine and narrow the way in which race factors into complex admissions processes.

This desire for diversity has come to dominate the conversation. But it’s not the only reason people cite when supporting affirmative action. Righting historical wrongs, creating more opportunity and equity, and forging a more integrated society are some others.

Rhea Leftbridge, an African-American graduate of the University of California at Berkeley and now an intern at a neuroscience lab at Harvard, frames it in equity terms. “Things have been messed up in America for so long. If the goal is equality, blacks and Latinos have been below for so long, we need to overshoot now to just get to a fair place."

Chloe Pan, a senior who serves as an external vice president for the undergraduate student association at University of California, Los Angeles, notes, "It would be great to have a system of meritocracy, but because we have such an inequitable K-12 system, we can’t really think about [a] merit-based [higher-ed system] when so many students don’t have access at the elementary and high school levels." 

Questions about how admissions work

The debate – and the fact that universities rarely have to reveal the details of how they choose among their applicants – contributes to misunderstandings of how affirmative action policies work.

“Some seem to think applicants are just admitted based on test scores and GPAs. That’s patently false” at competitive institutions, says Michele Moses, a professor of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder. For one, different campuses vary in their history and their approach to crafting an entering class. “These admissions practices are based on philosophies of access, opportunity, and holistic reviews of applicants,” Professor Moses says.

Harvard sent a statement to the Monitor reiterating its commitment to diversity and noting that its "admissions process considers each applicant as a whole person, and we review many factors, consistent with the legal standards established by the U.S. Supreme Court.” For the first time, Harvard reported Wednesday, the university admitted a majority of non-white students into its incoming freshman class.

For UCLA graduate student Margie Feng, originally from Shenzen, China, people’s perceptions of race-based policies matter. “Too much affirmative action is another kind of discrimination – but not against white students,” she says. “It's like saying I got in because I’m Asian. I got in because I’m qualified.”

More aggressive enforcement by the Department of Justice would be welcome by those who believe colleges and universities have not been true to what the Supreme Court has required.

Blum and others claiming discrimination against Asian-Americans use statistical analyses of admissions trends in which the proportion of those students has remained fairly constant despite a surge in their representation in applicant pools. They say de facto quotas are being applied that limit the number of Asian-Americans accepted. Lawsuits can result in more detailed scrutiny of admissions procedures.

Under the Obama administration, several such complaints involving whites and Asian-American students, were investigated by the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights and were closed without finding the universities at fault.

Some supporters of affirmative action worry that the continual push against it has created a chilling effect, and that this week’s news about Department of Justice plans could intimidate universities. Already, the less competitive but still selective schools – many of them with fewer resources at their disposal to potentially defend against investigations and lawsuits – may be backing away from using race in admissions in large numbers.

From 1994 to 2014, the percentage of selective colleges and universities that publicly state they use race in admissions has declined from more than 60 percent to just 35 percent, researchers Daniel Hirschman of Brown and Ellen Berrey of the University of Toronto found in a paper published in June. The decline has been strongest among lowest tier of competitive schools.

More research is needed to unpack what that means. The decline in public statements by universities about their use of race doesn’t necessarily mean “they’ve given up the fight” for equitable access and a diverse student body, says Art Coleman of Education Counsel in Washington, and a deputy assistant secretary of the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights from 1997 to 2000.

One theory is that more institutions are proving what the courts have been noting – that in some cases, race-neutral policies could be sufficient to achieve their goals. Some are focusing more of their diversity efforts on attracting low-income students, and many are recruiting more students internationally, for instance.

But with African-American and Latino students still heavily underrepresented in historically white-dominated competitive institutions, “we need to continue to think about race as a key factor in admissions,” says Wil Del Pilar, vice president of higher education policy and practice at Education Trust, an advocacy group working to close opportunity and achievement gaps. "We should be using state and federal dollars to look at disparities in k-12 funding."

Staff writers Jessica Mendoza and Story Hinckley contributed to this report from Los Angeles and Cambridge, Mass.