At one time caste was considered a basis for admission to college, but now it has been removed.

When the Supreme Court struck down race-conscious college admissions last June, Adrienne Oddie and other administrators at Queen’s University paused their board of trustees meeting to acknowledge that their world was entering a new era.

Though Queens did not factor race into admissions decisions like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Harvard University — the schools that were at the center of a decision that upended 40 years of tradition — officials at the Charlotte campus knew they had to take action: Even acknowledging a student’s race in admissions discussions could now lead to legal jeopardy.

That day, Oddy, vice president of strategic enrollment and communications at Queens, published an open letter on the university’s website, saying that admissions officers had “lost an essential tool in our tool kit by missing a defining part of each student’s story — each student’s identity.”

A year later, many of the country’s most selective universities have begun to comply with the court’s vision of an America without color, rethinking the ways they use race as a factor. But the reverberations of that approach have reached far beyond academia: Programs designed to diversify companies, public boards, and government contractors are facing legal assault in the wake of the landmark decision, pushing American society at large toward a new race-neutral era.

While the changes at colleges like Harvard have been dramatic, the principle of race-neutrality is being realized more subtly at universities like Queens, which accept more applicants than they reject them. Oddie said the ruling brought more “emotional change than practical change” to her office and described how she blinds herself to a student's race if the student mentions it in an application essay. The Supreme Court wrote that students can discuss race as long as it is relevant to an experience, such as a time they overcame racial discrimination.

Before the decision, Odi said she might “highlight” certain parts of an applicant’s identity while also evaluating them “holistically” — including the applicant’s race and ethnicity. For example, if a student writes about being a biracial woman with a father from the Philippines, the admissions officer might note that the university doesn’t see many Filipinos in the applicant pool and “we would love to see more Filipinos in the community,” Odi said, presenting a hypothetical scenario.

But today, he said, that conversation won’t happen at Queens. In fact, Odie said he’s been prevented from processing student racial information at all. Instead of brightening up that aspect of a student’s identity, he’s been forced to erase it. And that has created a sense of “grief” in him — not necessarily for himself but for students who may feel discouraged from writing about their full personalities, including race and ethnicity.

“I want to live in a world where people can fully know and be known,” she said.

The real impact of this decision may not be clear for some time. In the fall, universities will report the racial composition of their new students. Some Schools can do so this summer once students are admitted and have committed to attending the school. Early research suggests the impact of this decision may be relatively small: only about a fifth of all U.S. colleges place substantial emphasis on race in admissions decisions, according to a November 2023 Brookings Institution study.

A study by the Common App, a nonprofit whose application is used by more than 1,000 member colleges, found no major changes in the racial and ethnic composition of its applicant pool for the 2023-2024 admissions season. Nor did it find any significant departures from past trends in how students identify their race and ethnicity on the form, or how students write about race and ethnicity in their essays.

Zachary Bleemer, an assistant professor of economics at Princeton University, said states that have banned affirmative action at public universities may offer the best preview of the ruling's potential effects. California, Texas and Michigan — which all have highly selective public universities — saw immediate and significant drops in black and Hispanic enrollment at their flagship institutions when state officials barred them from considering race in admissions.

After California voters banned affirmative action at state universities in 1996, the University of California system saw a 12 percent drop in enrollment from underrepresented groups, while both the Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses saw declines of more than 40 percent, according to Bleymer's research. Over time, those numbers have risen at the most selective UC campuses, which have used a variety of strategies to boost diversity, in part because of a rise in the state's Hispanic population. But race-neutral alternatives did far less to increase enrollment of underrepresented minorities than affirmative action did.

Bleemer said it's hard to predict what might happen at highly competitive private universities. They could be guided by the experiences of public schools, which have adopted a variety of strategies to try to maintain diversity. Some have worked well, such as holistic reviews — in which admissions officers take into account many elements of a student's academic and extracurricular performance as well as personal characteristics — but some have not been particularly successful.

Still, some experts believe schools can maintain diversity without affirmative action, such as by increasing financial aid for students from low-income families, investing in pipeline programs, ramping up recruitment and conducting efforts like fly-ins to bring prospective students to campus. But these initiatives are more costly.

Administrators say assessing the decision’s impact is also complicated by another crisis in higher education: widespread delays in students receiving financial aid offers. Disastrous technical glitches related to the new Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form could affect where and whether students attend college, especially students from low-income families.

“I am concerned about misinterpretations … because so many things impacted this year’s data,” said Kedra Ishop, vice president of enrollment management at the University of Southern California. “It’s going to be really hard to predict what this year will look like.”

Some admissions officers said the delay is hurting efforts to maintain diversity on campus — possibly even more than the Supreme Court decision.

“Our efforts throughout this year have been to minimize the stress and pressure on students and families as these two major changes occur within a few months of each other,” Oddie said. These two factors will likely work together to change the racial and ethnic demographics on campus.

Legal experts said the Supreme Court's ruling could raise long-term questions for universities as they move towards caste-neutral admissions.

After the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions last June, these two students reconsidered their approach to college applications. (Video: Reshma Kirpalani/The Washington Post, Photo: Reshma Kirpalani/The Washington Post)

“It’s hard to overstate the sea change that has occurred, and that is clearly still occurring, because now second- and third-generation questions are emerging,” said Art Coleman, managing partner and co-founder of the Education Council, which is guiding universities in complying with the Supreme Court decision.

“What does this mean for financial aid and scholarships? What does this mean for nonprofit organizations that partner with institutions that may have a racial focus? What does this mean for issues of sex and gender beyond the question of race and national origin?” Coleman said. “All of the questions that the court hasn't specifically addressed — there are ripple effects and implications here.”

The University of Connecticut decided to keep racial data self-reported by applicants sealed to avoid any potential influence, said Vern Granger, director of undergraduate admissions. Although the college has used a system of review for years that uses a student's “full picture” to make decisions, this year application readers were not able to see the checkboxes indicating race. But those readers were able to consider applicants' life experiences, including how race affected them, he said. As described in the essays and letters of recommendation.

“We called in our general counsel's office and held a couple of sessions with our readers to reiterate their overall review and their professional judgment,” Granger said.

Oddy, the Queens administrator, said his office has made similar operational changes, removing race information from applications and instructing readers not to consider an application if racial information is explicitly visible in an essay or list of extracurricular activities.

But Oddy said Queens has long been able to achieve diversity on campus without explicit racial considerations. The university sends recruiters to every high school in Charlotte and tries to visit a variety of public high schools outside the city, sending an “inclusive” message that encourages applicants to apply regardless of their background. In last year’s incoming class, about half of students described themselves as white, while blacks and Hispanics each accounted for about 14 percent, he said. Another 5.5 percent identified themselves as multiracial and 2 percent as Asian.

Oddy said the optimist in her sees the Supreme Court's decision as an opportunity to test new strategies that could help schools reach new students. But as an administrator who has read tens of thousands of student applications in her career, she also feels a sense of loss.

“For some students who are ready, willing, and interested in engaging in topics related to race and ethnicity and how important their personal, racial, and ethnic identity is to them, we can get that information — but we can’t advocate for it,” Oddy said.

This means that she cannot always see the students from the perspective they would like to see her.

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