The recent Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action forbids the use of race in college admissions. Yet North Carolina public universities are already finding ways to circumvent the spirit of the ruling, such as by using essay questions that ask students about challenges they have faced or to reflect on their identity. These prompts allow students to say, for example, “As a Black student … ,” which is indeed permissible under Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard; students are not forbidden from bringing up their race in their applications.
These essay responses, as well as the personal interviews that are often conducted at the graduate level, allow admissions personnel to continue the use of race in admissions. Such efforts can be hidden under claims of “holistic admission,” which supposedly reviews the whole student but actually allows admissions personnel to ignore parts of an application they dislike, like poor academic performance, in favor of other parts, such as the race of the applicant. This raises an important question for the citizens of North Carolina: How can we ensure that our public universities follow the spirit, not just the letter, of the law?
Without test scores from all applicants, there can be no evidence of discrimination against some.Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard relied on standardized test scores collected from all applicants to demonstrate discrimination against Asian applicants, but our public universities have made standardized test scores optional for applicants, thus burying any evidence of discrimination. Without test scores from all applicants, there can be no evidence of discrimination against some.
My proposal to address this is simple because transparency is the easiest way to ensure accountability. (The Martin Center’s new model legislation, the Fair Admissions Act, takes a similar approach.) The UNC Board of Governors should require our public universities to collect standardized test scores from all undergraduate and graduate applicants and to annually publish detailed reports showing the average test scores of admitted students by gender, race/ethnicity, in-state vs. out-of-state status, and national origin. These reports should also be required for any academic major or minor that is restricted and that has its own application process to be admitted.
Including graduate admissions is vital, because while undergraduate admissions are handled by a central office, graduate admissions are conducted by small groups of faculty in many different academic departments across the universities. The central administrations provide little oversight of this process. Given the political orientation of the faculty, discrimination is more likely to occur here, and detailed reports for each graduate program will put pressure on faculty to comply with the law.
Reports for restricted academic majors and minors are also important. These are popular majors where students cannot simply choose to join up; instead, they must apply to the major, and only some students are admitted. I have heard rumors that university legal counsels are informing their leadership that the Supreme Court ruling applies only to admission to the university; it says nothing about what happens once a student is admitted. Formal legal guidance recently released by the UNC System does not address affirmative action in the internal application processes for restricted majors and minors. Just as universities used race to discriminate in the regular admissions process, they will continue to use it to discriminate in admissions to restricted majors and minors.
We can judge whether universities are covertly evading the law by the strength of their reaction if the Board of Governors moves ahead with my proposal. I predict howls of protest and disingenuous assertions that these reports are a bad idea. (As an aside, I predict the strongest protests concern graduate admissions, because top administrators understand that the worst discrimination is taking place at the graduate level.)
The board is meddling with university admissions procedures.
My proposal does not require universities to use standardized test scores when making admissions decisions, only to collect and report on standardized test scores. University admissions processes will remain unchanged.
The proposal will reduce applications because applicants will now be forced to take standardized tests.
All North Carolina students are required to take the ACT in the 11th grade, so this proposal has no effect on in-state undergraduate applicants. Out-of-state undergraduate applicants are highly motivated and will not be deterred by having to take a standardized test like the ACT. The same is true at the graduate level, because these students are seeking a master’s or doctoral degree to enhance their career.
Our universities are currently test-optional, so requiring applicants to submit standardized test scores will only confuse them and discourage applications.
At the undergraduate level, universities can simply inform applicants that they are required to collect test scores and give applicants the option on the Common Application to note whether they want their test score to be considered when the university makes its decision. Students already decide whether to submit scores when they fill out the Common Application; now their decision is simply changed to a checkbox on the Common App. A similar process can be used at the graduate level.
The cost of taking the test will reduce applications and hurt economically disadvantaged applicants the most.
North Carolina pays for the ACT when high-school students take it in the 11th grade. All the major standardized testing companies waive the testing fee for economically disadvantaged students.
North Carolina’s citizens must verify that our public universities are following the law when it comes to affirmative action.The ACT is a common standardized test at the undergraduate level, but we cannot mandate a single test at the graduate level due to the complexities of graduate education.
Undoubtedly, the medical school at Chapel Hill needs a different test than the doctoral program in philosophy. The solution is to mandate that every graduate program choose a test from a specific list of the most common graduate standardized tests, such as the Graduate Record Examination (typically used in the humanities and social sciences), the Graduate Management Admission Test (business school), the Law School Admission Test (law school), the Medical College Admission Test (medical school), and specific tests for fields such as dentistry and pharmacy.
Publishing numbers from small academic programs will violate student privacy as well as the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
Reporting the GRE score of, say, the single Native American student admitted to the gender-studies program at NC State clearly cannot be permitted. The issue of handling small numbers has been around for a long time, and the U.S. Department of Education has recommendations for protecting student privacy when issuing data reports (e.g., do not report numbers when the number of students used to calculate an average is less than five). The UNC System Office already uses this approach in their Graduation Retention Dashboard.
These reports will be a burden on our universities.
Our public universities use state-of-the-art databases that make data-reporting very easy. They are already collecting and reporting on these data elements for their institutional websites and to fulfill requests from college guidebooks and college rankings such as U.S. News. Creating new reports will require minimal effort.
Given that college admissions decisions are made behind closed doors due to privacy concerns, North Carolina’s citizens must verify that our public universities are following the law when it comes to affirmative action. Annual detailed reporting of standardized test scores for admitted students, sorted by demographics and academic programs, is the easiest way to accomplish this. Current admissions procedures can remain untouched, the impact on applicants will be minimal, and these reports are easily generated. Such transparency will increase confidence in our public universities and reassure North Carolina’s citizens that their children will be treated fairly when applying for college.
Stephen Porter is professor of higher education in the College of Education at North Carolina State University. His personal website is StephenPorter.org.