College & Workforce Readiness

What the Pool of College Applicants Looked Like After Affirmative Action Ban

By Ileana Najarro — June 17, 2024 4 min read
Students toss their caps into the air during the Morgantown High School graduation in Morgantown, W. Va., on May, 25, 2024.
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The Common Application, a not-for-profit member organization that colleges and universities use to receive applications, didn’t see immediate major shifts in student-application behaviors following the June 2023 U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down affirmative action.

New data analysis of 6 million U.S.-based college applicants over five years to more than 800 institutions found that overall, when it came to the 2023-24 application season ending on April 30, how applicants chose to self-identify racially/ethnically, how diverse applicant pools were, and how often students chose to apply to selective institutions remained largely on trend with past years.

“I remember being heartened that it did not seem to be that there were changes in application patterns, that underrepresented students weren’t being dissuaded from applying,” said Jenny Rickard, the CEO of Common Application.

Researchers did note some exceptions, including upward spikes in the 2020-21 season from first-generation applicants at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and at a time when institutions switched to test-optional policies for admission. More highly-achieving underrepresented minority applicants (Black or African American, Latinx, American Indian or Alaska Native, or Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander) discussed their racial/ethnic identities in essays than nonunderrepresented minority applicants in the 2023-24 season.

Common Application researchers also acknowledged the need for future research on admission patterns following the Supreme Court’s decision on the role of race in admissions, the impact of schools’ use and disbanding of test-optional policies, and the effects of the tumultuous new FAFSA rollout.

Early findings prompt questions for down the road

Key questions researchers at the Common Application sought to study in their data analysis were:

  • Are any changes observed in how students self-report their race/ethnicity on the platform?
  • To what extent did the application behaviors of underrepresented racial/ethnic minority students and students who are not underrepresented change in this admissions season versus prior seasons?
  • To what extent did the average diversity of member-institution applicant pools change in this season versus last season?
  • And because there was a specific call out in the Supreme Court decision related to students being able to identify themselves and their experiences with respect to their racial/ethnic identity, is there a difference in how students discussed their racial/ethnic identity in their open-response essays this season versus last season?

The analysis includes application trends for selective institutions, meaning colleges and universities with admission rates below 25 percent as of 2021, students with high SAT or ACT scores and high GPAs, students with various underrepresented racial/ethnic identities, and first-generation students, according to Brian Kim, a senior data scientist for Common Application.

For the question on self-identification in personal essays, researchers analyzed student-essay data by checking to see whether students used any word or phrase out of a list that closely related to the discussion of their racial/ethnic identity, Kim said. Overall, there were more highly-achieving underrepresented minority students using such phrases than students who are not underrepresented in the latest application season.

To get a better sense of whether this difference was due to the high court’s decision, students themselves need to be interviewed, Kim said.

There was also some evidence to suggest most selective institutions on the Common Application platform may have received a slightly lower proportion of Asian students in their high-achiever pool, Kim said, but added that the change was slight. “That’s kind of up to interpretation, it depends on how you think about trend and expectation.”

For policymakers and those advising college hopefuls, Nat Smitobol, an admissions counselor with IvyWise, a for-profit college-admissions consulting firm, said that a longitudinal look at admissions data would be helpful moving forward to determine the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision.

Smitobol also calls for more research on how test-optional policies played out, including longitudinal studies on graduation rates of students admitted without college-admissions tests since those tests are often used as measures of how well students will succeed in a given institution.

Research on the troubled FAFSA rollout and how some students didn’t get need-based financial aid in time to help them make a decision will be necessary, too, he added.

As for future Common Application research, Kim said: “Not wanting to commit ourselves to anything in particular yet, but I would be surprised if we didn’t continue to look at this exact report one year from now to look at, do we see something two years on, especially knowing that a lot of these statistics are running throughout the season.”

For now, Smitobol advises all those working with high school students seeking to apply to college to note that highly selective and prestigious institutions—which were targeted in the Supreme Court decision—are not the only path toward higher education.

“There’s places all across the country that have really amazing outcomes, they’re very student-centric, and they’re not playing the admissions game the same way that prestigious colleges are,” Smitobol said.


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