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Do debates about college diversity policies miss the point?

Public discussions focus on less commonly used enrollment strategies, report says
University Business, September 2015
A new report by the American Council on Education examines most commonly used diversity strategies in higher ed admissions. (Click to enlarge)
A new report by the American Council on Education examines most commonly used diversity strategies in higher ed admissions. (Click to enlarge)

Most public discussions about the use of race and ethnicity in higher education admissions decisions ignore targeted recruitment and some of the other strategies that have been used most often to increase campus diversity, says a new report by the American Council on Education.

The result is more polarized debate that—in seizing on less commonly used policies such as percentage plans and test-optional admissions—raises administrators’ fears that their diversity initiatives will be challenged in court, says Lorelle L. Espinosa, one of the authors of the report, titled “Race, Class & College Access.”

“The broader climate sets the stage where the institution and the admissions office have to think about the legality of their practices,” says Espinosa, the assistant vice president of the American Council on Education’s Center for Policy Research and Strategy. “There’s a heightened sense of urgency that is actually not founded.”

Courts have given colleges leeway to use race as a factor in admissions because of the educational and social benefits campus diversity provides all students, Espinosa says. Outreach and targeted recruitment, despite receiving little public attention, have become widely used strategies by administrators trying to enroll low-income, minority and first generation students, the report says.

Nearly 80 percent of the 338 four-year institutions surveyed reported employing such policies.

More than three-quarters of schools had ramped up recruitment of community college transfers.

The report encourages wider discussion of these policies among higher education leaders, along with increasing public funding to help institutions further innovate and develop best practices. Institutions surveyed also said more research is needed into the educational benefits of campus diversity, Espinosa says.

“What we should be doing is reinforcing the educational benefit message and the broader social justice message, and equipping institutions to feel confident about the work they’re doing.”

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