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Supreme Court AA Decision

Thursday, June 29, 2023: a day to remember in college admissions. On that date, the Supreme Court (SC) rendered its decision to gut Affirmative Action and disallowed race as a consideration in college admission decisions. Although it does not minimize the emotions this Court stirred up, this was no surprise. The only questions beforehand were to what extent the law would be struck down, and what would and would not be allowed moving forward.

Colleges have been anticipating that the former legal decisions which protected consideration of race in selective college admissions would be struck down, by implication if not opinion, so task forces on college campuses have long been in place to engage in institutional examinations of values, goals, and contingency plans. Letters of response from college presidents hit my inbox within minutes or days of the decision. This is a pivotal moment in college admissions—no doubt about that. How this redirects an application and plays out in the final decisions on campuses will be …uncertain, unpredictable, and slow-changing.

In short, the SC disallowed race as a basis of college admissions decisions, with the notable exception of the service academies. However, it still allows for the applicant to reveal the impact of race, ethnicity and other cultural experiences in essays and activities lists prepared for a holistic review of an application—if the particular college even uses that model. (A ‘holistic review’ is one that considers non-quantitative information beyond the transcript, level of course preparation and test scores. It tries to get a glimpse into the whole person behind the application and ascertain their match to the college’s institutional values and ethos.)

The nuances of this Court decision are still under interpretive scrutiny, but I can’t help but ask this now: People like those adults in the Students for Fair Admissions (SFA), who spearheaded and funded this case, vow that they will “still be watching” to make sure that admissions offices comply—and I can only presume that ostensibly this watchdog group will make sure that colleges only use essays to determine race, and that those essays only talk about the impact of race in them. Seriously? They will read all those hundreds of thousands of essays? How will they even get a hold of an admitted student’s essay to ascertain this compliance? These are confidential admissions files protected by FERPA! SFA does not know how admissions offices work!

For high school students about to embark on the college admissions journey, it stirs up many questions, which often boil down to the essential one foremost in their mind: How will it impact me now? Honestly, I do not anticipate that you might see major changes in the 2023-2024 application cycle in the way you will apply to a college. Some applications, in a fast turn-around, might invite or require an additional essay around this topic. (New applications open up on August 1st.) After all, that is what the University of Michigan did in June 2023 in the wake of their own Supreme Court decision, Grutter v. Bollinger. Prospective undergraduates were (and still are) required to reflect on this: “Everyone belongs to many different communities and/or groups defined by (among other things) shared geography, religion, ethnicity, income, cuisine, interest, race, ideology, or intellectual heritage. Choose one of the communities to which you belong, and describe that community and your place within it.” Perhaps an optional essay like this will replace or be added onto applications, like the Common Application, which ask about the impact of COVID-19.

We have to be patient and must proceed as we know college applications and admissions today, and not get stuck in the theoretical weeds that are just beginning to grow. Much is still unknown, and we may know little more anytime soon. It may take five years or more for the dust to settle and the greater pivots to take effect.

However, it is my job, so I have to have my ear to the rails, and I cannot help but speculate just a little about the trains perhaps coming down the admissions track. Socio-economic class seems to be a diversity lens that might come into increased focus in the next few years. Legacy and donor consideration in admissions is probably next on the chopping block, and some selective colleges are close to taking this step. Is this the hammer poised for the final nail in the coffin of accepting or requiring the ACT and SAT, long shown as tools favoring the wealthy? Will requiring counselor letters of recommendation become extinct, particularly since it is often the wealthiest school districts or private schools that can afford manageable school counselor caseloads or college specialists to write these letters substantively and well?

I am still smarting over the larger social implications surrounding this SC decision. I am an older, white, privileged woman, and I have not finished with my own reflections about this. I want to listen and learn from other viewpoints. But here is what I do know: selective colleges whose mission and values already include diversity, inclusion and belonging in their student community still want to achieve that goal. What is changing are the legal ways colleges can figure out how to identify racial diversity, in both recruiting and admission. Colleges must and will comply with the law, since they all receive funds from the federal government, primarily through financial aid subsidies.

Let’s get real: All colleges need different minds and experiences to fulfill their educational mission. The CEO of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC ), Angel Perez, contends in his July 2, 2023 NYT op-ed piece that educating with diversity is not only a moral imperative, but also an economic one. Education is training for the future workforce, and being stretched and challenged by those around us who think and believe differently is an essential part of doing that. Otherwise, true education—with its root word educare, to train, mold and lead out from—does not happen.

Let me use an analogy that might help make some sense. You are a musician, or the parent or guardian of one. Every good ensemble or orchestra needs a perfect balance of the right instruments to make the kind of music that people want to hear. That is the same with colleges, who need the right blends and range of sounds, tones, interpretations, ideas and experiences to bring to the ensemble and make things beyond the music alone. Practice in working together, in listening and improvising, and in taking risks make up mind-bending, confidence-stretching musicianship and a greater education. There are transferable skills here to many aspects of life and the workforce, aren’t there?

Let’s continue with the music analogy. The Supreme Court decision is like saying that you can ask to be in our ensemble (i.e., apply to our college), but on the application itself, you are not allowed to say which instrument you actually play. We will not be able to know if you have skills on the sax, percussion, keyboards, voice, bass, guitar, etc.—all instruments that we want, but we certainly do not want all of one kind, do we? Okay, Justices, you have tied our hands, but we are music specialists (and admission professionals). Our job is to make offers to the right combo of instruments we need to produce our harmonies, often in partnership with the larger institution’s standards and goals. Since we now can’t ask you directly what instrument you play, we will have to glean this important information, albeit with some high degree of assurance, from other parts of your application: a music resume, activities list, essays, recommendations and your musician’s statement. However, we may not really be able to know with 100% accuracy which instrument you really play until you show up at the audition, or heaven forbid, on the first day of classes.

No matter your own racial or ethnic background, the jolt of this decision can make you feel that you are standing on shaking ground or even quicksand. You are not alone. I said this to one of my current students on a debriefing Zoom shortly after the SC decision:

“You are who you are, the sum parts of your life experiences up to this point. You cannot change that. However, it is now not enough to say in your college application that you are a black male from the South Side of Chicago. You are challenged with going beyond the check-the-box race label, and you must say how this and any other cultural identifiers shaped your view of yourself and the world. How might these hone the many facets of the diamond that can become your future? Even then, there are aspects of your own particular cultural experiences as a black male that are not the same as others racially like you. What are your own differences, experiences, and observations?”

That kind of essay, which Chief Justice Rogers’ majority opinion still allows, requires cracking open your truer self and making enough time for deeper moments of reflection in order to articulate a portrait of you best. Honestly, these were the better college essays before the SC decision, and will be long after the legal dust settles. They might be harder to write, and take longer to get there, but in the end, they are more substantive and compelling to read. I trust you can share your own voice if you give yourself enough breathing space to hear it. Hey, a very young John Legend did a damn fine job of this when writing in an essay contest in Ohio in 1994, and he has lived up to the vision of his future since then. Take a look at his essay.

However, I would be remiss if I did not make some other commentary in the wake of this Supreme Court decision. There are some uncomfortable insinuations out there that gave rise to the case in the first place, and may contribute to the celebratory comments around this decree in some sectors. The truth is, admissions decisions were never based on race alone. The first delimiter always was meeting the individual college’s predetermined standard of academic preparation and performance, for that is the best predictor of college success. My personal frustration and sadness with the decision—and with so many of the assenting voices—is a false—I repeat, false!—presumption that a student who was admitted with racial considerations in mind was not academically qualified. Justice Clarence Thomas has spoken about his own educational and professional experiences and his feeling that others saw him as less qualified than he was. That has never been my experience with the professionals making the actual college decisions. What I have experienced, at times with my own eyes and ears, is the overt or covert anger/hurt/mad/sad from those students or parents who were not accepted thinking or saying that “they took my spot there” and “this is not fair.”

No, selective college admissions, and any music program too, by its very nature is unfair. Some will be chosen, and others not. Those choosing have to look first at who has the chops, intellectually or artistically. There are only so many [fill in the blank instrument] teachers and open seats in ensembles and orchestras for any particular instrument and the musician’s genre. “We have too many sopranos, and we really need some mezzos and altos in our choir or classical ensemble!” Yet jazz or pop ensembles might look through other lenses. This same balance of interests, goals and tenor apply to academic majors as well. Colleges want a variety of conversations around their educational tables, but they have a limited number of desks and dorm rooms to seat and house those voices.

So many music decisions are dual admissions—both meeting the academic standards and goals of the college or university and the needs of the music departments—so keeping the larger admission picture and landscape in mind is a good thing; but this and anything that might happen in the next weeks and months should not halt you now from pursuing your present goals. You may need to look through a little wider lens in shopping and applying, but you need not be blinded.

So, yes, this decision was made…ok. Your adjective to describe it might well be very different from someone else’s. Control what you can control, and let go of the rest for now. You can control this and make a commitment to change: register and vote so your voice and adjectives are heard.

My years of doing improv comedy have taught me a good college search and application tool: “Yes..and…” So, can you see where you could go from here? Yes! And…?


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