Responding to recent news affecting our admissions community
Responding to recent news affecting our admissions community

The Supreme Court of the United States ruled on 29 June that the consideration of race in admissions policies at two US universities was unconstitutional. This decision effectively bans race-conscious admissions processes at colleges and universities across the US.

There are 291 CIS higher education members based in the US, and many of these institutions will be affected by the ruling, having until now used race as one of a range of data points to increase access for historically marginalized students.

At CIS, our vision is to develop socially responsible leadership through international education. We will continue to pursue this vision with vigor, determined to help all members in all countries to work together to develop equitable educational opportunities in a world that is not equal. We are deeply troubled when countries set forth regulations that inhibit or reverse the objectives we work collectively to achieve as a global membership community.

—Jane Larsson, CIS Executive Director

Much has been written in recent weeks on the lessons that can be learned from institutions that have become more racially and ethnically diverse, without using race-conscious admissions. The University of California, for example, has succeeded in increasing representation by Hispanic and African American students since race-conscious admissions was outlawed in the state in 1996, albeit at significant expense.

There are also lessons that can be learned from other countries around the world, which have sought to expand access to higher education using a range of different means, often including but not limited to ‘affirmative action’ (programmes granting special consideration to historically excluded groups, specifically racial minorities or women). 

It is important to note that when seeking to apply learning from other countries or institutions, universities in the US will need to consider which measures will be permissible in the new legal landscape, bearing in mind that the majority opinion made it clear that substitute metrics and workarounds will not be tolerated.

While making it harder for universities to increase racial diversity on campus, the Supreme Court decision is likely also to contribute to the problematic rise of trauma essays, which I wrote about in last month’s update (available in the CIS Community portal). Students can still talk about race in college essays and interviews and may feel more pressure to do so since universities are still able to consider the extent to which a student’s race has given them courage and determination.  

The debate surrounding the Supreme Court decision raises broader questions about the role of wealth and access in college admissions in the US. Many Ivy League (highly selective) colleges, for example, take more students from the top 1% of household incomes than the bottom 60%. 

One recent study indicated that 43% of white students attending an elite US university were recruited athletes, children of alumni, relatives of donors or children of faculty and staff, and that 75% of these students would not have been admitted otherwise. In the face of this challenge and responding to the recent decision, US President Biden has called on universities to ‘give serious consideration to the adversities students have overcome.’ 

Looking to measures taken in the United Kingdom may be useful here. Following pressure from the UK government and an increasingly ambitious strategy to increase access (or ‘widen participation’) in higher education, many selective UK universities have changed their admissions policies to increase access for students from less privileged backgrounds, without using affirmative action programmes.

Female student university admission stock image

For example, as Simon Kuper recently highlighted in the Financial Times, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge have adopted ‘contextual admissions’ policies. These include the use of algorithms to gauge how much disadvantage candidates have surmounted to reach their academic level, by asking questions such as whether their parents attended university, or whether the student attended a private school. These universities have also sought to make interviews less intimidating for students from historically marginalized groups and to counter coaching afforded to students from private schools by changing their interview and exam questions more frequently. They have also increased and made more accessible their open days for students from less privileged backgrounds, drawing on enrolled students from similar backgrounds, which helps to foster a sense of belonging for potential applicants.

The impact of these changes has been significant, with the percentage of students from state schools enrolled in Cambridge University, for example, increasing from 61% in 2013 to 73% in 2022. Similarly, the percentage of undergraduate students at Oxford University identifying as black or from a minority ethnic group increased from 18% to 28% between 2018 and 2022. It is also noteworthy that in England, higher education providers are required to agree an Access and Participation Plan with their regulator, the Office for Students, to try and ensure they support fair admission and develop diverse student populations.

There is still much work to be done to increase access and support for students from historically marginalized groups. We want to share your stories with the CIS Community. We will be reaching out to members over the coming months to learn about new strategies and tactics as they emerge. 

We encourage our members to register for our deep dive workshop on reducing bias and increasing access in university guidance, recruitment and admissions. This workshop will take place in Dublin the day after our Global Forum on International Admissions and Guidance in November. The facilitators will explore with participants the lessons that can be shared between countries around the world, the ways in which universities can think differently and creatively about student access and reducing bias, without contravening local laws, and how to leverage research and student voice in this work. 

We will also publish a series of articles in the lead up to this workshop, which will examine the questions of access, inclusion, and anti-racism in university admissions and support. To inquire about contributing or writing an article as part of this series, please contact us

Responding to recent news affecting our admissions community