Can You Ignore Race and Still Build Diversity?

Charleston, SC / Anthony

August 1, 2018; Post and Courier and the Chronicle of Higher Education

In the summer of 2016, the College of Charleston quietly changed the way it was working to diversify its student body. Even with a student population considerably whiter than South Carolina as a whole, the college decided race would no longer be a factor in deciding which applicants to accept. Two years later, with the change made known by a recent story in the Post and Courier, we have another perspective on the impact of the kind of race-neutral policies advocated by the Trump Administration and factoring into the litigation currently challenging Harvard University’s admissions policies.

According to data gathered by the Post and Courier, in a state whose population is about 27 percent Black, “black enrollment peaked at about 8 percent in 2002.”

Overall, nonwhite enrollment has doubled in the past decade to about 20 percent, with a sharp uptick in 2010 when the college added a “Two or More Races” category to its annual reports.

The Post and Courier also found that “at the time the College of Charleston decided to end affirmative action, it had the fifth-lowest black enrollment rate of any college in the state, public or private.” Despite the growth of South Carolina’s Latinx population, the college had the fourth-lowest nonwhite student body in the South Carolina.

College officials said they found consideration of an applicant’s race no longer necessary to achieve the kind of student body they desired. Jimmie Foster, vice president of enrollment planning, explained that the college’s admissions committee “recognized that our student-of-color enrollments were increasing substantially while we were infrequently using race as a factor in the admissions process. So, we decided at that point that that holistic review process and all the other many diversity initiatives that we were using were already having a strong impact.”

There’s little doubt that a student body that better reflects the nation as a whole benefits all students. Jerry Lucido, who’s executive director of the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice and associate dean of strategic enrollment services at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, told the Chronicle of Higher Education that “most institutions believe that bringing diversity into the admissions process in some form has proved to benefit universities.” Lucido said that student studies find similar conclusions:

Students of all races believe that once they are in class and interact with individuals of other races, they believe that learning has been enriched, their understanding has been improved, that greater diversity brings broader and more effective solutions to issues. This is exactly what we want to happen in the academy.

If race is ignored, how can this kind of representative campus be achieved? Those who study the impact of affirmative action efforts say leaving race off the table won’t work. Eboni Nelson, associate dean for academic affairs at the University of South Carolina School of Law, told the Post and Courier that “outreach programs and race-blind admissions are often not enough to grow diversity. When race-conscious affirmative action is taken off the table, that usually ends with a less diverse campus.”

This also poses a reputational challenge to the College. Quiet changes to the admission procedures have left allies in the black community scratching their heads. NAACP Charleston Branch President Dot Scott told the Post and Courier that while she had a working relationship with the college’s administration, she was not informed of the change. “What it looks like and what it is are two different things,” Scott said of the school’s assurances to activists. From the perspective of education professor Jon Hale, the decision is reflective of a college with “a problem with racial inclusion.”

There are a lot of “good faith” efforts and well-meaning people [but] the administration consistently fails to take a strong stance against racism on campus…[which may] forever be branded as a “racist institution.”

—Martin Levine