The Need for Courageous Dialogue in Admissions

Tim Foley for The Chronicle

June 24, 2013

In Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the Supreme Court has offered its own version of a cliffhanger. Rather than striking down the Texas admissions plan, it remanded the case to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals so that it can determine "whether the University has offered sufficient evidence to prove that its admissions program is narrowly tailored to obtain the educational benefits of diversity."

Traditionally, college admissions processes have shown that it is impossible to take race out of the equation when a diverse student body is the goal, because most of the criteria for admission—grades, extracurricular activities, and standardized test scores—put the wealthy and overly represented at an advantage. An even harder truth is that our considerations of race, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status in higher education have not provided the needed access to educate significant numbers of talented individuals from diverse backgrounds. It's not that we have not made progress. Rather, the track we've been on won't take us where we need to be.

The demographic and economic contexts of the United States have changed, yet we are still stuck in the 18th-century reasoning that a gain for one demographic group is a loss for another. And we are still fooled by the simplistic rationale that equality means treating everyone the same all of the time. We will not flourish without the resources that diversity offers, and our diversity must be inclusive, domestic as well as international.

The Fisher decision provides an opportunity for us to reflect deeply on the kind of society we want to be and to design the processes, strategies, resources, and policies to get us there. In the wake of this decision, we must remind ourselves of the purpose of higher education and recalibrate our thoughts about who wins and who loses when we endeavor to broaden access to it. Fisher provides an opportunity to innovate.

When I was a director of graduate admissions at a Tier 1 university, the five other members of the committee and I learned that too many of our admissions processes were based on 20th-century measures of excellence, which heavily favored testing and grades, and not on the indicators that are truly necessary for success in a graduate program or an academic career. We had deep and uncomfortable discussions about identity, privilege, historical barriers, and definitions of excellence that provided a more nuanced decision-making process about the candidates we admitted to our graduate programs.

This is our opportunity today: To ask the many provocative questions that no Supreme Court ruling can easily answer, because the answers lie in the courageous dialogue, heartfelt deliberations, and novel ideas that are often missing from court cases. We need to look at the Fisher case as a blessing in disguise, a chance to rethink our assumptions about the role of education in American society, to create processes that increase access to a wider array of talented individuals, and to widen the circle of collaborators who help us make these determinations.

So what would new admissions requirements look like if they were to truly lead to greater equality among an increasingly diverse pool of applicants? They would need to do a better job of framing diversity, equity, and inclusion as a positive-sum game, in which people of all racial, ethnic, class, and gender backgrounds benefit. After all, education provides more than individual benefits. Instead, it provides such societal benefits as a higher standard of living, more humane public policies, and increased innovation.

New requirements should be research-driven. Fisher provides an opening for leading education organizations, university presidents, governing boards, faculty members, student leaders, admissions directors, recruitment officials, and those who devise and disseminate college-ranking systems to rely more on research that calls into question traditional explanations of what it takes to succeed in college and beyond. New requirements should consider "grit"—recent research shows that "grit" and self-discipline are better predictors of college completion, especially among African-American men, than lofty standardized test scores and stratospheric GPAs.

And as cheating on standardized tests as well as grade inflation become more common, there could be no more propitious time to design a more inclusive array of indicators that tap into the diverse array of talents, background experiences, varieties of intelligence, racial and ethnic identities, economic categories, religious backgrounds, and abilities that America depends on to be a global leader in education.

The Fisher case also provides an opportunity to collaborate as well as broaden the cast of characters involved in making higher education more accessible, inclusive, and equitable. Families that do not have a tradition of college experience must be educated early on about what it takes to groom children for higher education and college success.

Recruitment efforts should be designed to serve families in their own communities and native tongues, and education associations in partnerships with foundations and corporations should create public informational campaigns, preparing "how to go" documents for distribution at medical and government facilities, and on commonly used Web sites, to engage parents as partners in higher-education achievement. Places of worship, community groups, political organizations, civic organizations, and immigrant communities will be crucial in cultivating and identifying talented students.

Leveraging these connections will create meaningful ties that can facilitate more inclusive campus climates, and help all students develop the connections and experiences they need to work, live, and lead in the 21st century.

Yvette M. Alex-Assensoh is a professor of political science and vice president of equity and inclusion at the University of Oregon.