At major research institutions around the country, faculty members are getting ready to read graduate-student applications for admission. This year, they not only have their own intuition and experience to guide their decisions, but guidelines from the Obama administration. With regard to ensuring diversity within higher education, they recommend that:
- An institution could consider an applicant’s socioeconomic status, first-generation college status, geographic residency, or other race-neutral criteria if doing so would assist in drawing students from different racial backgrounds to the institution.
- An institution could include in its admissions procedures special consideration for students who have endured or overcome hardships such as marked residential instability (e.g., the student moved from residence to residence or school to school while growing up) or enrollment in a low-performing school or district.
- An institution could implement a plan that guarantees admission to a top percentile of students graduating from all in-state high schools.
- An institution could select schools (including community colleges) based on their demographics (e.g., their racial or socioeconomic composition), and grant an admission preference to all students who have graduated from those schools, regardless of the race of the individual student.
- An institution could consider an individual student’s race among other factors in its admissions procedures; in so doing, an institution should follow the legal guidelines concerning the individualized use of race that are set forth above.
I wonder how often faculty members have considered these strategies in the past. How often do we consider the background of those students we admit? Do we think about their hardships, their neighborhoods, and the experiences they may have had or NOT had because of their race or class? Do we think about how students have been mentored and the access (or lack of) they have to social capital? Do we forget that schools are unequal, offering a starkly different educational experience depending on where a student lives? Or do we look at all students in the same way, forgetting that the playing field is not even.
If we can’t bring ourselves to consider diversity for these social justice-oriented reasons, perhaps we can consider the benefits that diversity brings to our institutions, our classes, our personal intellect, and to the nation as a whole. Of note the Obama administration anticipated that some of us would not be convinced that considering race in college admissions is the ‘right’ thing to do. As such, they provide evidence that having a diverse class of students benefits individual students by challenging their assumptions, fostering creativity, and helping them to adjust to new situations more productively.
As we head into 2012, with our nation’s first black president, we are nowhere near having a level playing field in terms of educational preparation (or anything else, for that matter) in America. Regardless of the outcome – benefits to racial and ethnic minorities or benefits to all of us – considering race in college admissions at any level is vital.