July News: Admissions after Affirmative Action: More Emphasis on the Essay?

Jul 25, 2023

I hope you’re having a great week! Below we have included the latest education and admissions news updates we found compelling in July.
Last week, our GMAT/GRE jedi Toph gave a webinar on the new GMAT vs the updated GRE. 

I’ve included the recording of Toph’s talk in case you couldn’t catch the full thing as well as our slides at the link below. I hope they’re helpful!


 Onsen New GMAT-GRE Presentation.mp4


The Supreme Court’s decision is still dominating the newscycle and is leading some to focus on potential fallout be it fears about future legislation or preemptive censures from certain conservative politicians. In the meantime, colleges are focused on having effective and efficient admissions departments after this sweeping change. Chief Justice Roberts criticized the college admissions process as “elusive,” “opaque,” and “imponderable,” but the court’s ruling could make the process “even more subjective and mysterious.” With less emphasis on standardized metrics, such as SAT/ACT scores and class rank, admissions decisions will become more complex and likely rely more heavily on the admissions essay. Students’ personal statements will become an important tool in helping schools build a diverse class. Essay questions could become more pointed; Mount Holyoke’s incoming president, Danielle Ren Holley, provided an example of a question applicants might see in the future: “One of the core values of Mount Holyoke College is diversity of all kinds. Please tell us why you value it, and what you think you bring to the Mount Holyoke community in terms of diversity.”


Opponents of affirmative action, including Students for Fair Admissions, are vowing to hold colleges accountable to the court’s ruling and have used strong language and threats of legal action against institutions who would subvert the law. In his decision, Chief Justice Roberts warned colleges against using furtive methods to evaluate a students’ candidacy based on race; however, he also stated the following: “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.” How the law will be enforced remains a grey area, and it will take colleges testing the waters – and, in some cases, facing legal action – to get a better picture of what post-affirmative action admissions will truly look like.

With Supreme Court Decision, College Admissions Could Become More Subjective (NY Times) – 6/29/23 (updated 7/7/23)

Challenge to Legacy Admissions at Harvard


In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action, a legal activist group has filed a complaint demanding that the federal government put an end to legacy admissions at Harvard University. The three Boston area groups filing this grievance argue that legacy admissions, the practice of giving special admissions treatment to children of alumni or relatives of donors, discriminates against ethnic minority applicants, while giving preferential treatment to less qualified, white candidates. Historically, colleges have defended legacy admissions as a means to build community and secure much-needed funds from donors. Harvard has thus far issued no comment about the complaint.


The push to end legacy admissions is an expected first response by the left to the Court’s decision. It is no surprise that in recent remarks, President Biden specifically called out legacy admissions as “expand(ing) privilege over opportunity.” That being said, this issue is one that transcends political allegiance. In a recent Pew Research Poll, 75 percent of Americans are opposed to legacy admissions.

Harvard’s Admissions Is Challenged for Favoring Children of Alumni (NY Times) – 7/4/23

ABC News Poll: Majority of Americans Approve of Supreme Court’s Decision


According to an ABC News/Ipsos poll conducted this month, 52 percent of Americans approve of the Supreme Court decision to restrict the use of race as a factor in college admissions, with 32 percent expressing disapproval and 16 percent stating that they don’t know.

Along political lines: 75 percent of Republicans polled approved of the decision, as did 58 percent of Independents and 26 percent of Democrats. Along racial lines: 60 percent of White people polled approved, as did 58 percent of Asian people, 40 percent of Hispanic people, and 25 percent of Black people.


52 percent, although technically a majority, is a very slim one – and it helps illustrate the philosophical schism surrounding this landmark decision. Even if there was a clearer mandate one way or the other, the court’s job is not to uphold the will of the people; it is to interpret the law and defend the constitution. Another interesting finding in the ABC News poll is that 76 percent of Democrats, 51 percent of Independents, and 36 percent of Republicans believe that the court makes rulings mainly on the basis of partisan political views.

Most Americans approve of Supreme Court decision restricting use of race in college admissions: POLL (ABC News) – 7/2/23

UC Davis’ Method Promotes Diversity – Could It Be a Widely-Successful Model?


The medical school admissions team at UC Davis developed a tool to evaluate applicants based on their level of socioeconomic disadvantage: the SED. Applicants are rated on a scale of 0 to 99 based on life circumstances – factors such as family income and education are turned into metrics for this score. The result of the SED is combined with grades, test scores, recommendations, essays, and interviews to determine admissions decisions. Thanks, in part, to the SED, UC Davis has become one of the most diverse medical schools in America. 


Following the Supreme Court’s affirmative action decision, some wonder if the UC Davis SED system could be a key part of the future of admissions decisions nationwide. Skeptics fear that a more indirect system such as the SED will not be enough to halt the loss of diverse talent in higher education. Conversely, affirmative action critics could consider measures like the SED as falling outside the range of what is legal – similar programs have already come under legal scrutiny. Since the Court handed down its decision, twenty other schools have reached out to the UC Davis admission team for more information. 
With End of Affirmative Action, a Push for a New Tool: Adversity Scores (NY Times) – 7/2/23

Supreme Court Rules Affirmative Action Unlawful


Last Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected race-conscious admissions programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina. This judgment, in essence, makes affirmative action unlawful in higher education admissions decisions. Sadly, this will almost definitely lead to a drop in the number of Black, Hispanic, and Native American students on U.S. campuses in the coming years. The vote was 6-3 with the liberal justices in dissent. This was a particularly contentious ruling, with justices on both sides of the decision trading harsh barbs with one another. In addition to affecting the admissions practices of colleges and universities nation-wide, this decision could negatively affect diversity efforts elsewhere, narrowing graduate school pipelines and making it more difficult for employers to consider race in hiring.


This decision is, of course, the biggest piece of higher education news of the week. Stakeholders have assumed it was coming for months, but now that the decision has been handed down it leaves more questions than answers in its wake. Will colleges use the application essay as a back-door means of racial selection? Chief Justice Roberts specifically warned against such practices in the decision, but will such warnings be enforceable? Will higher education admissions decisions become more subjective and even less transparent? How far will this ruling extend past college admissions? While those on both sides of this decision are either mourning or celebrating, no one quite yet knows the future ramifications of this watershed judgement.

Supreme Court Rejects Affirmative Action Programs at Harvard and U.N.C. (NY Times) – 6/29/23

Affirmative Action Decision’s Likely Consequences in STEM and Other Sectors 


If the sweeping fallout from the Supreme Court’s affirmative action decision follows the same trajectory as the effects of race-conscious admissions at UCLA and UC Berkeley, the number of Black students could drop precipitously on college campuses nationwide – in 1998, when the ban was first enforced at the aforementioned institutions, the number of Black first-year students dropped by 43% and 66%, respectively. Some researchers fear that such a trend would “reduce diversity among workers in sectors such as science.” For example, U.S. universities hire the majority of their tenure-track faculty members from a small cadre of elite universities. Without affirmative action, this pipeline will very likely become less diverse. Black and Hispanic workers are already underrepresented in the STEM field (9% and 8% of the total workforce, respectively), and there is concern that these percentages will now drop even further.


Some fear that the Court’s decision will have far-ranging negative effects on diversity well beyond the classroom. On Thursday, the Association of American Medical Colleges released a statement expressing its vehement disappointment in the Court’s decision: “the AAMC believes that a diverse and inclusive biomedical research workforce with individuals from historically excluded and underrepresented groups in biomedical research is critical to gathering the range of perspectives needed to identify and solve the complex scientific problems of today and tomorrow.”

US to end race-based university admissions: what now for diversity in science? (Nature) – 6/29/23

Elon Assignment Challenges Students to Rethink Relationships with AI


An adjunct assistant professor of religious studies at Elon University noticed a growing number of suspiciously-worded essays from his students, which pointed to the use of AI chatbots. He used this troubling trend as a launchpad for a shrewd assignment: he asked students to use ChatGPT to generate an essay and grade it as if they were a professor receiving an assignment from a student. All 63 AI-generated essays were found to have significant errors, including overly-circuitous language, misattributions, and, in some cases, fabricated sources.


With this assignment, the professor was able to shine a light on the very real pitfalls and limitations of this technology, while engaging his students and offering them a stake in the process. A follow-up classroom conversation touched on fears over potential misinformation and “mental atrophy.” This assignment is a tangible example of how educators can harness this emerging technology for the benefit of their students.

What happened when an entire class of college students had ChatGPT write their essays (Marketplace Tech) – 6/23/23

The History of DEI, a Movement in Jeopardy


This piece explores the history of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts and places them in a context of being shaped by political crises. In the aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, public higher education institutions across the country felt a push to become more inclusive, specifically to recruit more black students to campuses. In the 1970s there was a “cautious movement” to accept students and faculty of color. This movement gained traction, albeit slowly, over the coming decades. It was not until the mid-2000s when the role of “Diversity Officer” became a more widespread position throughout U.S. colleges and universities.


With pushback against DEI offices across the country, it is important to consider the history of such programs to counter the mischaracterization that DEI is “indoctrination,” as is so often pushed by the critics of these programs. These programs help to both uphold diversity in higher education and keep campus climates safe and welcoming for non-white and LGTBQIA+ students. Such efforts are now in serious jeopardy: 21 states have pending legislation that pulls funding from DEI offices, bans the use of diversity statements in hiring, or bans identity-based hiring and admissions practices. In four states, this legislation has been passed and signed into law.

The Evolution of DEI (The Chronicle of Higher Education) – 6/23/23

Math & Reading Performance of 13-Year-Olds Lowest in Decades


According to test scores released from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the math and reading performance of 13-year-olds in the U.S. is at a decades-low. Although disruptions from COVID are cited as a potential cause, the downward trends reported began years before the pandemic. Achievement declined across measures of geography, class, and race, but vulnerable populations – especially Black, Native American, and low-income students – experienced steeper downturns.


The results show “troubling gaps in the basic skills” for the students tested. The fact that vulnerable populations saw bigger declines in scores correlates with the fact that these students tended to be more heavily affected by pandemic disruptions with longer-term school closures and remote learning. It is worth noting that critics of the NAEP test question its utility as a metric, as its content differs widely from material taught in U.S. classrooms.

What the New, Low Test Scores for 13-Year-Olds Say About U.S. Education Now (NY Times) – 6/21/23

Texas DEI Offices Gutted At State-Funded Colleges and Universities


Texas Governor Greg Abbott has signed a measure requiring state-funded colleges and universities in Texas to close their diversity, equity, and inclusion offices. According to the Texas State Senate, this is the most significant ban on diversity offices in the country. According to State Senator Brandon Crieghton, one of the authors of the bill, “Texas is leading the nation and ensuring our campuses return to focusing on the strength of diversity and promoting a merit-based approach where individuals are judged on their qualifications, skills, and contributions.”


Diversity offices have become the subject of controversy in recent months as presidential hopefuls build their brand by stoking the fires of the culture war. Nevertheless, this action seems designed to remove schools’ abilities to actively recruit minority students. With a Supreme Court decision expected later this month that will most likely deem affirmative action unconstitutional, the removal of these offices is bound to sow further chaos as higher ed institutions struggle to ensure diverse admissions while navigating a plethora of new restrictions.

Texas governor signs law shutting diversity offices at public universities (Reuters) – 6/16/23

College Board Not Ceding to Florida’s LGBTQIA+ AP Psych Objections


The College Board has issued a statement that it will not modify the curriculum of its AP Psychology course in response to the Florida Department of Education questioning the “learning objectives” of course material that covers gender and sexual orientation. State officials objected to certain content which may not comply with Florida Law; it is worth noting that Florida has some of the toughest anti-LGBTQIA+ statutes in the country, including the infamous “Parental Rights in Education” bill, colloquially known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. According to the statement from the College Board: “we will not modify our courses to accommodate restrictions on teaching essential, college-level topics. Doing so would break the fundamental promise of AP.”


This is, of course, not the first time that AP curriculum has become politicized this year. This time, however, the College Board has not hesitated in pushing back against Florida authorities. In response, the American Psychological Association has thrown unequivocal support behind the College Board. According to Arthur C. Evans Jr., PhD, the CEO of the APA, “Understanding human sexuality is fundamental to psychology, and an advanced placement course that excludes the decades of science studying sexual orientation and gender identity would deprive students of knowledge they will need to succeed in their studies, in high school and beyond…We applaud the College Board for standing up to the state of Florida and its unconscionable demand to censor (this) educational curriculum”

College Board and Florida Fight Over AP Psychology (Inside HigherEd) – 6/16/23

Law Schools Provide Diversity-Forward Admissions Template


University of Michigan Law School and the University of California, Berkeley School of Law can provide models for other schools to follow for when affirmative action is likely deemed unconstitutional later this month. Both schools saw a precipitous drop in Black and Hispanic students when their states banned affirmative action. However, over time, both schools were able to increase applicants among those demographics by instituting pipeline programs that introduce college students to legal careers and by focusing on non-race-based metrics, such as applicants’ family income and whether they are the first in their family to attend college.


Although both law programs were able to increase racial diversity of their applicants with “extra institutional effort,” bolstering economic diversity simply does not yield the same level of racial diversity as considering race directly, according to Berkeley Law dean Erwin Chemerinsky. Chemerinsky is concerned about how other institutions will act in the face of this added difficulty: “my great fear is that after the Supreme Court decision, colleges and universities will give up on diversity.”

If affirmative action is struck down, these law schools may point to the future (Reuters) – 6/15/23

The Benefit of Holistic Admissions: A Fair Way to Build a Diverse Student Body


The author contends that holistic admissions is the best path forward for equitable and diverse enrollment. Holistic admissions asks admissions officers to not privilege any specific component, such as standardized tests, AP results, and extracurriculars, for which a student can be at a disadvantage based on their socioeconomic status. Instead, an applicant’s materials should be regarded with a wider framework: if a student did not have access to AP curricula did they seek out other challenging course work? If a student could not afford a prestigious summer program did they use their time to support their community or pursue other interests? Thus, holistic admissions enables institutions to better measure a student’s potential in context of their own unique combination of privileges and hurdles.


In preparation of the Supreme Court decision, many colleges and universities are working to overhaul their admissions processes to ensure continued diversity. As strong the case is for holistic admissions, such a process has the potential to be both expensive and time-consuming. With resources already stretched thin for an overwhelming number of institutions, it remains to be seen how many schools will be able to employ such a comprehensive approach when bringing in new students.
Holistic Admissions Will Save Higher Education (Forbes) – 6/14/23

Written by

Zachary Adler
Author Image Since 2010, Zach has been helping students achieve their college readiness goals, specializing in all sections of the SAT, ACT, PSAT, and SHSAT. Prior to joining Onsen, Zach worked for a global investment firm, as well as in various roles in the education space. He has served as a youth mentor and has run college readiness information sessions for students in under-resourced communities. Additionally, Zach is a writer and filmmaker. He is an International Baccalaureate scholar and a graduate of Boston University.

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