Colleges should step up their diversity efforts after affirmative action ruling, the government says

The Biden administration is asking America’s colleges to step up their efforts to make campuses more racially diverse

Collin Binkley
Thursday 28 September 2023 18:13 BST
Education Affirmative Action
Education Affirmative Action (Copyright 2023 Associated Press. All rights reserved)

The Biden administration is asking America's colleges to renew their efforts to make campuses more racially diverse, urging schools to boost scholarships and minority recruiting and to give “meaningful consideration” to the adversity students face because of their race or finances.

The Education Department issued a report Thursday promoting strategies to increase diversity in the wake of a Supreme Court decision in June barring colleges from considering the race of applicants in the admission process. It fulfills a request from President Joe Biden to help colleges advance diversity without running afoul of the court's decision.

In announcing the report, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona called on state and local education leaders to “break down barriers for underserved students and reimagine pathways into higher education.”

“Our future is brighter when we prepare students of all backgrounds to lead our multiracial democracy together,” Cardona said in a statement.

The guidance amounts to a suggestion and has no binding authority. The federal government has little power to make demands of colleges and universities without an act of Congress or new federal rules.

It was issued the same day a House Education and the Workforce subcommittee discussed the future of college admissions after affirmative action. Republicans warned that they will be watching for colleges that defy the court’s decision.

“To those at institutions who think the Supreme Court ruling is a ‘pretty please’ ask, this committee will keep a close eye as the 2024 application process unfolds,” said Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah. “ Racism, hidden or overt, will not be tolerated by this oversight body.”

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., countered that affirmative action helped level the playing field in admissions, balancing policies that favor the wealthy, including legacy admissions, in which children of alumni and donors are favored in admissions.

“Without policies to counterbalance the discriminatory factors,” he said, “the outcome of the system will remain discriminatory.”

Much of the new guidance echoes an August letter issued by the departments of Education and Justice clarifying that colleges can still legally work to admit diverse student bodies.

The report encourages colleges to step up recruiting students of color. That can be done by expanding outreach to certain high schools, the report said, or by building transfer pipelines from community colleges, which admit higher numbers of Black and Latino students. It recommended making college more affordable by increasing need-based financial aid and making the application process simpler and more transparent.

The administration underscored that adversity should be a significant factor in the admission process, reinforcing an idea embraced by some colleges but criticized by opponents as a loophole to indirectly consider race.

The report said schools should give “meaningful consideration in admissions to the adversity students have faced.” That includes any experiences of racial discrimination or other adversity based on their finances or where they grew up.

It echoed previous comments from Biden pitching adversity as a “new standard” in college admissions after the court's decision. Some colleges have added writing prompts about adversity or overcoming challenges into their applications, opening the door for students to discuss their racial background.

The Supreme Court appeared to leave room for that kind of maneuver. The majority opinion said that while schools cannot directly consider an applicant's race, nothing stopped colleges from considering “an applicant’s discussion of how race affected the applicant’s life" — as long as the discussion was tied to the student's "quality of character or unique ability.”

The Education Department is also pushing colleges to rethink practices that hinder racial or socioeconomic diversity. Biden and Cardona have urged schools to stop the practice of legacy admissions.

Cardona recently told The Associated Press he would consider using “whatever levers” he can to discourage legacy admissions, although it's unclear what action he will take.

Colleges are being encouraged to take up the recommendations in hopes of avoiding a sharp decrease in the enrollment of students of color. Some states that previously ended affirmative action saw steep drops in the enrollment of Black and Latino students, including in California and Michigan.


The Associated Press education team receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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