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The Student Newspaper of Poly Prep Country Day School

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The Polygon

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The Elimination of Affirmative Action

The+Elimination+of+Affirmative+Action
Sophia Chamorro

Using race and ethnicity as a deciding factor in the college admissions process and other areas of higher education has long been debated. But on June 29, the Supreme Court officially ruled in favor of eliminating the use of affirmative action as a factor in college admissions, making former affirmative action programs in admissions processes at universities such as Harvard and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), unlawful. 

Prior to the ruling, The New York Times reported that nine other U.S. states already banned affirmative action, including California, Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Washington. According to The Times, without affirmative action, schools in California and Michigan saw significant declines particularly in black student enrollment.

“When you refer to affirmative action, you’re referring to the legal precedent saying that colleges are allowed to consider race as one element of a person’s profile as an applicant so that their class is not homogeneous,” explained Upper School Dean Chair Emily Gardiner, who has been involved in college counseling and deanship at Poly since 2015.  

The two Supreme Court cases regarding affirmative action in college admissions  involved Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College as well as Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina, according to U.S. News and World Report. Both lawsuits claimed that college admissions processes taking race into account discriminated against Asian American students, and in regards to UNC specifically, white students as well.  

Introduced in the 1960s as a way of addressing the historic racial discrimination within higher education admissions, affirmative action policies “are critical for dismantling institutional practices that limit opportunities for highly qualified African Americans and other marginalized racial minorities, according to the American Bar Association.” 

Associate Head of School Kyle Graham, who has an extensive background in college admissions, stated “In the context of the work that I was doing, I took it [affirmative action] to mean trying to level the playing field, trying to help people who come from different backgrounds, different circumstances, [and] who are perhaps underrepresented in higher education.” 

When news of the Supreme Court ruling broke, colleges and universities were quick to send out public announcements via email and social media, assuring that despite the illegality of affirmative action, schools would remain firm in their commitment to creating a diverse student body. However, Poly’s Upper School Deans sent out their own email to the Upper School community, alerting students that over the summer “admissions offices and college counselors will begin sharing practices to navigate this landscape, and we will be keeping close tabs on these developments. Our paramount goal is to identify the best strategic approach for every single student we work with, and our feelings about this [Supreme Court] decision do not diminish our determination on that score.” 

In the past ten years during her work at Poly, Gardiner has seen the concept of affirming on the basis of race play out in several ways: “One thing I think affirmative action has done is create…a lot of incredibly toxic dialogue for the private school kids that I work with, and I think anyone in my role and our role at a similar school to this one would say the same. There’s a lot of toxic dialogue about deserving and merit.” 

Upper School Dean and Poly alumna Chekira Lashley noted similar conversations surrounding questions of merit and legitimacy in relation to affirmative action, especially when she was a student at Wesleyan University. “There are so many misconceptions around who benefits from it [affirmative action]. The idea is [that] there are white students with more merit that are overlooked because they’re trying to meet a racial quota and then black and brown students with less merit get in with a lower GPA or lower standardized test scores,” Lashley explained. With affirmative action now gone, Lashley stated that the ruling will hopefully dispel such narratives. 

Colleges have managed to find somewhat of a silver lining when it comes to continuing their efforts in creating a diverse class. According to The New York Times, in an excerpt of the Supreme Court majority opinion written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr, it states that, “Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration or otherwise.” 

“They feel like that language gives them the ability to continue affirming students as long as the student is not saying, you know, categorically ‘I’m part of this demographic and this demographic has been oppressed.’ It’s more [so], ‘here’s how my situation has affected me specifically’,” added Graham. 

As stated by Gardiner, several colleges have rewritten their supplemental prompts in order to encourage students to share important aspects that play a crucial role in who they are, that may not be found elsewhere in their applications. For instance, as reported by the Harvard Crimson, in response to the affirmative action ruling, Harvard College’s application now contains five required 200-word short answer questions, including “Harvard has long recognized the importance of enrolling a diverse student body. How will the life experiences that shape who you are today enable you to contribute to Harvard?” Similarly, Duke University amended its application by telling prospective students to “Feel free to tell us any ways in which you’re different and how that has affected you.” 

“They’re asking those questions because they want to be able to continue to affirm students,” Graham said. “Now, whether that ends up in more legal drama, I don’t know — so we’ll have to see this year. What I can tell you is that the friends that I talked to suggested that they plan on continuing to do the work they believe is right.” 

Given Roberts’ statement in the majority opinion, Graham explained that signaling (the act of letting colleges know how you racially and ethnically identify in more inexplicit ways) has become an integral part of the senior class’ college applications this year. Since schools will no longer see the racial checkbox on applications, according to Graham, “now, the only way they’re going to be positioned to be able to affirm a student is if somewhere in the application, they get a sense of the student’s identity and that the student crosses that threshold of satisfying Roberts’ condition in that little language.” In order to ensure that aspects of a Poly student’s identity are clear in all areas of their application, Graham noted that this year, Gardiner and the deans changed the template of letters of recommendation so that each contains some short context about the applicant, their family, and background. 

More often than not, college admissions officers spend very little time reading students’ applications. According to an article from the Wall Street Journal in 2018, some of the most selective schools dedicated 8 minutes or less for an application due to rapid increases in application numbers. 

“You want the reader [of an application] to like the kid, to like the file — to take it from just an abstract reading, the stats about SAT score and GPA, and turn it into something human. I think the way human nature is, you’re more likely to be pulling for someone once you have a sense of their story,” Graham explained. 

 

This fall, Lashley has also noticed students signaling their identities in other areas of their applications. “I’ve seen a couple of different pathways, such as some people saying their ethnic name in addition to their American name or just people sharing ‘as a black student in a predominately white space…’” 

However, Gardiner still assured that the “qualitative writing about the student’s life, for example, their financial situation, whether their parents went to college, all of the personal qualities that are highlighted in, for example, a counselor letter about what they bring to school or what they’re doing with their education,” also plays an important role.  

Though the impacts of the ruling are hard to pin down this early on, Gardiner explained that if anything, the court decision will continue to encourage and facilitate constructive conversations within the school community. 

“This sort of throws down the gauntlet to us once again to get our seniors talking about this in an intelligent way, so that we are not allowing a shallow understanding of the imperatives to create a representative class at selective colleges. Our shallow understanding of that causes us to judge each other in completely inaccurate ways,” Gardiner said. 

On September 27, the Upper School Deans hosted a discussion on the Supreme Court’s affirmative action decision along with two colleagues at major highly-selective universities: an admissions reader and a Dean for Intercultural Engagement. Though the deans and guest speakers acknowledged that there are many unknowns going into the college admissions process this year, they assured Upper School students in attendance that they feel hopeful for the future. 

“I feel like we’ve been doing a pretty good job post this decision, making sure students know how to do [signaling] right, how to do it effectively. [For] other kids who don’t have as sophisticated counseling, who don’t have as [much] personalized attention, maybe there’s a chance they don’t know how to signal. So if the highly selective colleges don’t have as many kids effectively signaling it’s going to help the kids who did,” Graham said. 

In the coming years, the school hopes to gain a better understanding of what the college admissions process will look like without affirmative action. 

“We’re going to see how colleges choose to respond to the decision. And my guess there will be some variance where some colleges will continue to do what they’ve always done and some colleges will stray from that and chart a new path,” Graham said. “What we’ll do is try to use the data and use our conversations with reps as they come in, as we go to fairs and conferences and just try to help best support our kids.”



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About the Contributor
Jordan Millar, Editor-in-Chief

Jordan Millar is the current Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Polygon and a senior. She began writing for the Polygon during her freshman year as a staff writer, served as the News Editor during her sophomore year, and the Co-Managing Editor during her junior year. Her favorite pieces to write are in-depth news stories and profiles. Outside of the Polygon, Jordan works as a professional composer and writes music for numerous top orchestras and ensembles including the New York Philharmonic, Little Orchestra Society, New World Symphony, and more; she has been composing since she was nine and participates in several music composition programs across the city. When she’s not writing articles or composing music, Jordan enjoys drawing, reading, and shopping! 

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