I just returned from a 3-day hiking trip in the Pacific Northwest with a couple friends that I’ve known for 30 years. It was an amazing time to catch up and unplug. Before we left we downloaded a GPS app, purchased a topographic map of the area, and checked multiple trail and weather reports. As we gathered our gear at the trail head, we talked to people coming out about the downed trees, river crossings, and overall conditions. We did all of this to try to understand what to expect, how to prepare, and what to bring in order to have a fun and safe trip. We all do this when we buy a car or are thinking about asking someone out on a date, right? We read reviews, we talk to friends, we “shop around.” For any important decision we always want more information, not less. And so it goes too for the college admission process.
Fisher v. Texas
If you have been reading or watching the news lately, you know the Supreme Court is adjourning for the summer. In advance of that, they released a bevy of rulings last week, including the Fisher v. Texas decision, in which they ruled 4-3 (with Justice Kagan recusing herself) to uphold the University of Texas at Austin race-conscious admission policy. For those of utilizing holistic admission processes, this is important because it protects the current precedent (established in Bakke, Grutter, Gratz and Fisher 1), which allows for race to be one of many factors in the admission process.
One of Many Data Elements
In my opinion, however, upholding the ability to utilize race in admission is symbolic of the larger win. To be honest, it’s more about the data. Maybe someone should write a song called, “It’s all about the data, ’bout the data.” Not sure that quite has the same punch as “the bass,” but the concept is absolutely accurate. If you start to take away data points, you begin to deteriorate the effectiveness of a holistic file review process. The entire reason you go beyond a formulaic process (only looking at classes, grades, and test scores) is to get a full picture of each student while reading an application. Take away data elements and you begin eroding the complete picture. It’s like removing critical pixels in a larger graphic. First, you remove race, then gender, then parents’ marital status, and the list goes on.
In fact right now the White House is pushing a “Beyond the Box” initiative and is encouraging schools to sign the Fair Chance Pledge. This calls for “colleges and universities to help remove barriers… that prevent citizens with criminal records from pursuing higher education.” One of the factors that they cite is that students are less apt to apply if these questions are on the form. I’d like to see the research on that because certainly if that is deemed to be prevalent, it’s a reasonable argument. However, in general, I like to see those questions and the responses. Questions we ask in committee are: “What did the student do… and when? What has happened as a result? Is there evidence of grit or lessons learned? Did they write about that?” Most of the questions we ask are in hopes of finding evidence that the student has grown and will contribute and flourish on campus.
Seeing the Bigger Picture
Applications are built to form a picture, to tell a story, and to provide context. This is why we want to know what extra-curricular activities a student has chosen to pursue; it’s why we read the essays; it’s why admission officers or alumni take the time to interview students. We are constantly looking for history, background, and context.
Undeniably, race is a sensitive subject. And the court points to this stating, “it remains an enduring challenge to our Nation’s education system to reconcile the pursuit of diversity with the constitutional promise of equal treatment and dignity.” The race/ethnicity of students, however, is only one facet of a much broader diversity goal that schools have—and what’s crucial to remember is why diversity in all of its forms (geographic, gender, extra-curricular, etc.) matters.
When students live and study alongside classmates from a wide variety of backgrounds, their experience is ameliorated. Rich dialogue and enhanced learning stems from differences. And those differences serve to improve classroom discussion and the overall campus ethos. Being respectfully asked “Why are you wearing that? Why do you believe that? Why did you just say that?” in a college setting produces graduates who enter the workplace capable of being challenged and excited about being stretched to broaden their perspective. Ultimately, these graduates go on to bolster communities and enrich their workplace, because they are more aware of people’s differences, needs, challenges, and desires. They create better products, better policies, better communities, and a fundamentally better world.
So while many will take a myopic view of the Fisher result as being about race- it’s really about the data—and colleges need that to improve not only the learning environment on campus but, more importantly, our nation and workforce in the future.