At selective colleges and universities across the United States, admissions officers decide the fate of students seeking higher education. Historically, those decisions have been based on standardized test scores and high school academic performance. But that didn't always yield the most diverse student body, so other attributes have been and continue to be considered, including race and ethnicity.
Despite efforts on the part of admissions officers to institute a fair evaluation process--increasingly with the use of technology and social media--the selection process has come under fire once again. This fall, the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to consider the case of Fisher vs. Texas, and the process of holistic review appears to be at the crux of the debate.
The University of Texas-Austin is one of the most selective public universities in the country. Abigail Fisher wasn't admitted to the flagship Austin campus and sued the university in 2008, arguing that she was denied admission because of her race. Fisher, who is White, missed being admitted under the state's Top 10 percent law, which would have granted her automatic admission to the university if she were in the top 10 percent of her class. Nearly 90 percent of the entering class that year was admitted under this law, according to Jessica Givens, an author and college admissions strategist.
Fisher's standardized test scores and grade-point average also failed to gain her automatic admittance. Another group of students were offered slots based on an holistic review process which may take into account the applicant's race or ethnicity, socioeconomic background, life experience, desired major and a host of other attributes.
Givens, who founded the Houston-based All-In-One Academics, says that it's an "open secret" in Texas that Austin is the most competitive campus and choosing the right major is a strategy to gain admittance. Givens says she counsels students to provide as much information as possible so that their application can be competitive with those of other students. In Texas, particularly, Givens says, race and/or ethnicity should be considered, because the United States has not reached full equality for people of color. With a large Hispanic/Latino population and many first-generation college students, "I don't see how you can divorce applicants from their race," she says.
In deciding Fisher vs. Texas, the Supreme Court will debate whether race-neutral admissions policies should be implemented at the university. In other words, the court will decide to what extent, if any, holistic review should include race and ethnicity as an attribute.
A holistic conundrum
"It's clear to me that the national trend is towards reducing or eliminating the consideration of race in admissions," says Benjamin D. Reese Jr., president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education. "This is truly unfortunate given everything that recent research has shown us about the role of diverse perspectives and approaches in contributing to solving some of the most complex issues of our planet."
Reese, who is vice president and chief diversity officer at Duke University, says any "thoughtful person" would want to have more variety among the individuals and perspectives within student bodies. "Any approach, labeled 'holistic' or otherwise, that is conscious of, and takes into account the widest range of experiences and backgrounds--including race--seems a no-brainer."
What Reese calls a "no-brainer" is "particularly ugly" to Roger Clegg, president and general counsel for the Center for Equal Opportunity, who believes that race should not be a consideration in the admissions process.
"The unfortunate fact is that selective colleges and universities discriminate on the basis of race or ethnicity," says Clegg, who has been with the organization since 1997. …