Law & Courts

Colleges Get Help On Admissions Rulings

By Sean Cavanagh — February 11, 2004 2 min read
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The legalese that infiltrated the lexicon of academia last year with a pair of far-reaching U.S. Supreme Court decisions (think “critical mass,” “individualized consideration,” and “compelling interest”) should act as the starting point for college and university leaders in rewriting campus mission statements and admissions policies, a new guidebook suggests.

A manual written by two former civil rights lawyers for the U.S. Department of Education offers advice to the nation’s higher education institutions on how to craft admissions plans that comply with the Supreme Court rulings last year involving the University of Michigan. The court allowed the use of race as a factor in admissions but struck down a system of awarding bonus points to minority applicants. (“Justices Give K-12 Go-Ahead to Promote Diversity,” July 9, 2003.)

Download “Diversity in Higher Education: A Strategic Planning and Policy Manual Regarding Federal Law in Admissions, Financial Aid, and Outreach,” from the College Board. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.) The College Board also maintains a page of the latest news concerning diversity in education.

The manual, “Diversity in Higher Education: A Strategic Planning and Policy Manual Regarding Federal Law in Admissions, Financial Aid, and Outreach,” draws from the language of the court’s June 2003 rulings in offering advice to campus leaders and policymakers. It was published by the College Board, the nonprofit, New York City-based organization that sponsors the SAT college- admissions test.

To comply with the rulings, colleges should be prepared to show in mission statements and admissions policies that diversity is not an end in itself, but rather a way of bringing direct educational benefits to their schools, according to authors Arthur L. Coleman and Scott R. Palmer. The benefits could include improved learning and teaching, better relationships between students of different backgrounds, and better preparation for careers working in an increasingly diverse society.

Colleges should also consider taking other steps, the lawyers advise, including: considering race-neutral alternatives in admissions, and if they do not make them part of their policy, explaining why; judging all applicants according to the same criteria; defining “diversity” in a way that refers to more than just race or ethnicity; and promoting efforts to support diversity on campus in ways other than through mission statements and admissions policies.

The authors cautioned, however, that their advice is not necessarily lawsuit-proof.

“Little here is about absolutes,” Mr. Palmer said in Washington on Feb. 4, at a discussion on the guidebook. “A lot of this is about trying to balance legal risks.”

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