It has been a turbulent year for college admissions, marked by a landmark Supreme Court decision, an escalating enrollment crisis and a political battle over higher ed’s soul.
For the admissions officers on the front lines, the Supreme Court’s ruling striking down affirmative action—arguably the year’s marquee event—cast the biggest pall. According to Inside Higher Ed’s annual Survey of College and University Admissions Officers, 64 percent of respondents said they disagreed with the decision to ban race-conscious admissions, while only 17 percent agreed.
Although admissions officers were mostly united in their opposition to the decision, survey responses reflected a range of views about the ruling’s potential impact on diversity, which diverged further when respondents considered its impact on their own institutions.
David Hawkins, chief education and policy officer at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said the decision is part of a wide-reaching movement to politicize diversity and inclusion in higher education, and that admission is likely to become an even more contested battleground in the future. The question of how to ensure diversity and promote college access in the post–affirmative action era, he said, is front and center for many admissions officers.
More on the Survey
Inside Higher Ed’s 2023 Survey of College and University Admissions Officers was conducted in conjunction with Hanover Research. The survey included 239 admissions leaders from public, private nonprofit and for-profit institutions, with a margin of error of 6 percent. A copy of the free report can be downloaded here.
On Wednesday, Oct. 18, at 2 p.m. Eastern, Inside Higher Ed will present a free webcast to discuss the results of the survey. Please register here.
The Inside Higher Ed Survey of College and University Admissions Officers was made possible by support from Niche and Lumina Foundation.
“There was a real earthquake in higher ed this year, and that’s the reckoning we are having around concepts like equity, racial justice and racism. And what this court decision did was, in our view, a step backwards,” he said. “Now things are markedly different, and so everything is on the table.”
The survey was sent to 2,611 admissions officers and administered online from June to August. It garnered 239 responses, a rate of a little less than 10 percent, from a mix of institutions: 100 public, 134 private nonprofit and five for-profit colleges.
Among the report’s key findings:
- The majority of respondents said the Supreme Court’s ban on affirmative action would lead to less diversity in higher education. But when asked about their own institutions, they were less pessimistic: 75 percent said they did not think diversity would decrease at their college, and 15 percent said the ruling would lead to a change in their institution’s admissions policies.
- Nearly two-thirds of admissions officers said their institution does not award any financial aid based on race or ethnicity. Of those that do, only 20 percent said they plan to change their policies in the wake of the Supreme Court decision.
- A majority of respondents said they failed to meet their enrollment goals by May 1, reflecting ongoing enrollment challenges across higher education. At the same time, more than 80 percent said they did not expect their institution to enroll fewer students in the coming years.
- Over 80 percent of respondents said they’re likely to prioritize transfer and minority students in recruitment efforts going forward. Forty-six percent said they would focus on students paying full tuition and 30 percent on part-time students.
- Test-optional policies are becoming more entrenched: only 3 percent of respondents said their institution still requires standardized test scores, and 44 percent said their institutions recently switched to a test-optional policy.
On the Supreme Court Decision’s Impact
More than half of admissions officers said they think the affirmative action decision will result in fewer minority students being admitted to competitive institutions. At the same time, three-quarters believe their own institution will maintain its current level of diversity despite the Supreme Court’s decision.
In addition, only 15 percent of respondents said they anticipated that their institution’s admissions policies would change in reaction to the ruling.
Robert Massa, vice president emeritus for enrollment at Dickinson College, noted some cognitive dissonance between respondents’ optimism about their own institutions’ diversity levels and their denial of the need for new policies.
“I am not quite sure how to reconcile the two, unless they interpreted policy as distinct from practice,” he said. “But the two are very much related in my mind.”
Jill Orcutt, global lead for consulting at the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said the results also reflect the stratification of the higher education sector: despite the outsize impact of the Supreme Court ruling on the admissions conversation, the majority of institutions never used race-conscious admissions in the first place.
“Most institutions are open access and aren’t going to be affected by the decision,” she said. “They’re just not talked about quite as much as the selective [institutions], despite being by far the majority.”
Respondents were also split on whether the Supreme Court decision should apply to race-conscious financial aid policies, as some conservative legal activists and politicians have argued. Nearly two-thirds of admissions officers said their institution does not award any financial aid based on race or ethnicity.
Of those that do, only 20 percent plan to change their policies in light of the Supreme Court decision.
Massa said that the 80 percent of respondents who say they use racial selection as a factor in some financial aid awards and have no intention of stopping are taking a big risk, however narrowly one interprets the ruling.
“I expect that Students for Fair Admissions, or another group, will target schools that continue to use race in any part of the admissions process. Financial aid is obviously part of that process because it is completed simultaneously and is critical to facilitating enrollment,” he said. “Obviously, institutions must consult with legal counsel on this issue, but I think one walks a tightrope here with respect to race-restricted scholarships.”
Hawkins, however, was heartened by the number of institutions committed to applying the ruling strictly to race-conscious admissions instead of pre-emptively extending it to other areas such as financial aid, as some institutions have been accused of doing.
“There will be more legal scuffles to come around this and many other things. In fact, after 23 years in this business, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that there will never be an end to the litigation,” he said. “You have to figure out your own North Star at this point, because avoidance of legal entanglements is not going to constitute a viable institutional strategy.”
Diversity Efforts Post–Affirmative Action
So what do admissions officers think about some of the leading proposals for increasing diversity without affirmative action?
Many colleges first looked to the admissions essay as a potential workaround to the ban on race-conscious admissions, adding or altering prompts on their applications to give students the opportunity to talk about how their racial identity has helped shape them. But according to the survey, 67 percent of respondents were not confident that the essay could help maintain diversity, and only 31 percent expressed moderate optimism.
Hawkins chalked that up to the time-consuming nature of reviewing essays and the potential legal and ethical pitfalls of relying on them for demographic insights.
“To think that there would be a revolution in the outputs that come out of the admissions process just because of the essay is probably something that most admission officers just don’t see happening,” he said.
Respondents did express interest in recruiting and admitting more transfer students from community colleges, however—a strategy that would likely increase diversity due to the much greater heterogeneity of two-year institutions. Easing transfer pathways has already produced results at selective colleges including the University of California, Berkeley. Eighty-four percent of respondents said their institution was likely to increase recruitment efforts for transfer students, making them the largest target group named in the survey; 83 percent cited the second-largest group, minority students.
Respondents were split when it came to implementing state policy solutions, such as Texas’s decades-old practice of guaranteeing the top 10 percent of applicants admission to the public institution of their choice, a proposal launched after a state court struck down affirmative action in 1997. Thirteen percent of respondents said their states already had such a policy and 25 percent favored adopting it, while 36 percent were opposed.
“Admissions officers really value their autonomy, and some judgment gets lost in a percentage plan,” Hawkins said. “It is a blunt instrument to use for admissions, and that might explain some of the split there.”
Still, the practice is expanding: earlier this month, the University of Tennessee’s Board of Governors voted to adopt a top 10 percent guarantee plan for the system’s flagship in Knoxville.
Other proposals for increasing diversity without affirmative action have centered on eliminating certain current admissions practices—such as legacy preferences and early decision—that typically privilege wealthier, whiter applicants.
Legacy has been the most hotly debated of these policies; lawmakers have introduced legislation against it, the Department of Education has launched investigations of institutions that practice it and a small but growing list of selective institutions has formally abandoned the practice, citing the Supreme Court decision and shifting public attitudes.
This year, just 14 percent of admissions officers indicated that their institution grants any degree of preference to legacy applicants. Admissions officers from private nonprofit institutions (24 percent) were much more likely than those from public institutions (3 percent) to say they give preference to children of alumni.
Half of respondents said institutions should not grant legacy preferences, with 22 percent expressing strong disapproval. Meanwhile, only 13 percent said they supported the practice. While the number of supporters didn’t change much from last year, the volume of vociferous opponents did: in 2022, 27 percent opposed legacy preferences, but only 14 percent expressed strong disapproval.
Respondents were much more evenly split on the question of recommendation letters, which some have argued disproportionately benefit privileged, white students who attend high schools where they have the opportunity to develop close personal relationships with teachers and college counselors. About a third supported the idea of dropping letters, while 30 percent opposed it.
Test Optional: The New Normal
Only 3 percent of respondents said their institution requires standardized test scores to be submitted, down from 7 percent in 2022. Forty-four percent of the remainder said they adopted test-optional or test-blind policies recently, after the pandemic, which forced the majority of colleges to at least temporarily eschew such requirements.
Of those who made the switch to test optional, the vast majority are pleased with the decision: 74 percent said it was a positive experience, and 92 percent said they would support remaining optional.
Hawkins said the movement toward test optional had already gained considerable ground in the years preceding the pandemic, but the crisis forced many colleges to take the extra step. Now, he said, test-optional policies seem nearly as entrenched in higher education as standardized test requirements were in the early 2010s.
“There was a lot of concern early on about convincing stakeholders that test optional was the way to go,” Hawkins said. “The pandemic really circumvented the need for those conversations and proved to everyone that admissions can go on pretty much unabated without the tests.”
If the pandemic accelerated the shift to test optional, the affirmative action decision may bury it for good: 65 percent of survey respondents whose institutions recently changed to test-optional or test-blind admissions indicated that they admitted more Black, Latino and Native American applicants after adopting those policies.
Enrollment Crises and Delusions
This year’s non–affirmative action story has been one of continuing enrollment declines and their attendant financial and reputational crises. Last week’s board vote to make severe cuts at the flagship West Virginia University was perhaps the starkest example, but worries abound in demographically challenged regions and for small private colleges.
That’s largely reflected in admissions officers’ responses on meeting their enrollment goals this year: only 40 percent said they met their goals before May 1, and of the 56 percent who didn’t, the majority still hadn’t met their goals by July 1.
Yet respondents expressed confidence that their incoming classes would continue to grow: only 15 percent said they will enroll fewer students in the coming years, while over half believe they will enroll more.
Over all, the year of transformation in college admissions seems to have generated worries about the future but only limited interest in changing recruitment targets or adopting new admissions policies; 80 percent of respondents said they did not anticipate admitting students their institution likely would not have admitted in previous years.
As the dust continues to settle from the Supreme Court ruling, Massa expects that to change, too.
“The admissions process itself has, in general, not changed much in the almost 50 years since I started as an admission and financial aid counselor … but change is on the horizon,” he said. “How much and how fast are other questions, but I think it best that institutions begin to imagine how the process can be improved in this new environment.”