Federal rules change allows for race-aware admission

New federal guidelines released Dec. 2 broaden universities’ legal freedom to consider race in recruitment and enrollment – an admissions practice already adopted at GW.

The document outlines lawful ways universities can boost student diversity, such as race-conscious admissions; targeted recruitment in specific districts and regions; and partnerships with programs or schools comprised of certain student populations.

“Attaining a diverse student body is at the heart of [a university’s] proper institutional mission,” the Department of Education and Department of Justice-backed statement read.

The University’s vice provost for diversity and inclusion said the recommendations “provide a rule of thumb” for considering race in admissions. Terri Harris Reed, hired this May, said she has not yet delved into the inner-workings of admissions at the University, but is part of the campus-wide conversation about how to “effectively articulate that diversity is tied to our academic mission.”

She said the guidelines provide universities “a new way to think about our work,” because in the past, admissions officials feared legal repercussions for affirmative action policies.

The document advised ways to broaden the diversity of an applicant pool, affirming universities’ legal abilities to consider race and factors that could be proxies for race, such as socioeconomic status, first-generation college status and geographic residency. In some cases, it says race can be “outcome determinative,” supplanting former President George W. Bush’s guidelines that warned against considering race in admissions.

Associate Vice President and Dean for Undergraduate Admissions Kathryn Napper said she lauds Obama’s announcement “to align with the right of colleges to consider race and ethnicity in admissions decisions.”

Napper said the guidelines are “consistent with our holistic approach in the review of applications and supports our long-time practice of considering race as one of many factors when identifying students to whom we will offer admission.”

The top admissions administrator said the guidelines would not have “any major impact on our recruitment strategies,” because the University has consistently aimed to enroll diverse students.

Regarding recruitment, the document explains that universities may target specific school districts or regions that have larger populations of lower-income families or races that are underrepresented in the school’s applicant pool.

The University stepped up admissions outreach efforts in 2008 amid concerns of the economic downfall, and has continued to expand its recruitment as fewer students graduate from high school in key feeder states. Senior Vice Provost for Student and Academic Support Services Robert Chernak said earlier this fall that the University has increased its visits to urban high schools and expanded specialized recruiting programs geared toward minority students.

Reed, one of the leaders of University President Steven Knapp’s Council on Diversity and Inclusion, has targeted faculty hiring as her focus this year. Reed said, while she is not yet familiar with the intricacies of GW admissions, one of the council’s subcommittees will include a representative from the office and will look more in depth at their practices.

“I think it gives us a frame to start being more aggressive,” Reed said of universities across the country. “I think people have been moving more cautiously.”

Reed added concerns that “if you’re going to use race as consideration, then you need to do a whole-file review of every single applicant, so that no particular race has an adverse impact.”

About 28 percent of the University’s freshman class is multicultural, a 1 point increase from the previous year. Two-thirds of undergraduates are white or did not report their races, according to data from the Office of Institutional Research.

“What we will do is look at the guidance to see if there are things we can do that we weren’t doing, that we may have been more cautious to do,” Reed said.

The publication comes on the heels of a federal appeals court case this summer that overturned a ban on considering race and gender in admissions. The decision struck down University of Michigan’s affirmative action policy, which prohibited “preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin.”

The Supreme Court could soon see a lawsuit from the University of Texas challenging race-aware admissions policies. The 2008 case, in which two white students sued for being denied admissions based on their race, has stirred nationwide interest after the university’s admissions program was upheld in federal and appellate courts.

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