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After Supreme Court affirmative action ruling, Pennsylvania colleges explore alternatives for boosting diversity

  • Gabriela Martínez/WITF
FILE PHOTO: With 95,802 students enrolled, the State System of Higher Education now has about the same enrollment as it had 20 years ago, according to the official fall semester student count released on Tuesday. At Shippensburg University (shown here), enrollment declined by 312 students this year, for a total of nearly 6,100.

 Dan Gleiter / PennLive

FILE PHOTO: With 95,802 students enrolled, the State System of Higher Education now has about the same enrollment as it had 20 years ago, according to the official fall semester student count released on Tuesday. At Shippensburg University (shown here), enrollment declined by 312 students this year, for a total of nearly 6,100.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that race-conscious admissions decisions at universities violate the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. 

While some colleges are worried that the end of affirmative action could deter students of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds from applying to certain schools, others are confident the ruling will have no significant effect, thanks to alternative recruitment strategies that target underserved students of color or admissions processes that focuses on students’ individual experiences, rather than race.

The impact of the ruling will depend on each institution and its admissions process. For many students, it will mean that they no longer will have the option to identify their race in college applications, and admissions officers will be evaluating their applications without knowing their race. 

Some large Pennsylvania university systems say the ruling will not impact their admissions process because they were not using race-conscious admissions policies. For example, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, which oversees 10 universities, says race is not a standalone factor in admission, since its goal is to “provide an education at the lowest possible cost to large numbers of students,” Kevin Hensil, director of media relations, said in a statement.  

Roughly 76% of students who enrolled at PASSHE for the 2022-2023 academic year were White, and about 24% were classified as minorities, according to PASSHE’s enrollment dashboard.

“We have 85,000 students, primarily in degrees such as business, healthcare, STEM fields and education that led to jobs in Pennsylvania, whereas Harvard was part of the case because it has very limited enrollment,” Hensil said. The ruling will be more relevant or could have a more significant impact on smaller, more exclusive colleges, he said.

In Lancaster County, where roughly 89% of the population is White, some small private colleges have long tried to attract students from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. At the same time, admissions officers at Franklin & Marshall College were expecting the Supreme Court to strike down affirmative action. Don Saleh, interim vice president for enrollment management at the college, says the admissions process at the college is already designed to evaluate students based on multiple factors, like their essays, letters of recommendations, transcripts and extracurricular activities.

“We look at what experiences the students have outside the classroom, either in their community in their high school, and if they’re working,” Saleh said. “Some of our students, their major out-of-school activity is – if they have two parents who work or one parent who works – they come home from school, and they’re with their little brothers and sisters, so there are a lot of things that we look at to understand where the student is coming from, what kind of life experiences they have.” 

The college will be making changes in its admissions process starting this fall. Common Application, which is the single application form that students send out to multiple colleges, will hide information on race, and admissions counselors will not be allowed to know a student’s racial and ethnic background during the selection process.

Saleh said the college will have a better understanding about the impact of those changes in May or June of 2024, after they have admitted students and can analyze the demographic diversity of their applicant pool. There is a concern that fewer students of color will not even try to apply.

“I think that one of the big challenges we will face is that there will be an impression among some students that the likelihood of them being admitted to a selective college has diminished significantly, because of this ruling,” Saleh said. 

The number of students of color in first year classes had been trending upwards at Franklin & Marshall, but when the pandemic hit in 2020, total enrollment began to drop. That drop in enrollment was most visible among students of color, according to Saleh.  Before the pandemic, the college had a first year class that was between 25% and 30% students of color. Now, that number has dropped to just under 25%.

Elizabethtown College in Lancaster County, also touts a “holistic” approach in its admissions process that does not focus on racial background, or whether a student belongs to a historically disadvantaged group. The college looks at grades, extracurriculars, letters or recommendations and tries to gauge how much interest the person has in pursuing higher education, as well as the talents and skills they bring to the college.

Elizabethtown College’s campus is 83% White and about 15% of their student population is Black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American/Alaska Native or biracial, according to the college’s enrollment data. Kesha Morant, senior advisor for college diversity, equity & belonging at Elizabethtown College, said the college has made efforts to increase campus diversity in the last three years, and has created various DEI staff positions, including Morant’s’ role. 

The focus, Morant said, should be in recruitment and creating a pipeline for students from underserved communities who want to pursue their undergrad education at Elizabethtown – not just the number. Part of Morant’s job is to create long-term relationships with community-based groups and organize campus tours and events for high school students of color interested in applying. 

“When students or faculty or staff choose to come here, I don’t want it just to be about numbers. I want it to be also about their entire experience,” Morant said. “We’re trying to have some intentionality around, not only increasing the numbers, but building a meaningful community for our students while they are here.”

At Dickinson College in Carlisle, admissions officers often knew a prospective student’s race while evaluating their application materials.

“The race of a particular applicant was known to the college, and as our admissions people constructed a class, they would have an eye on diversity,” said John Jones, Dickinson College president and a former federal judge. “No longer will race standing alone be able to be used as a factor that will allow you to construct a diverse class.”

The school will rely more on the student essay, which could be centered on race, if the person writes about how race and ethnicity have shaped their life experiences.

The school is trying to attract students of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds by eliminating financial barriers, such as application fees. The college also became test-optional, which often benefits students from low-income backgrounds, who cannot afford expensive courses to prepare for standardized college admissions tests.

“We’re going to rely very heavily on community groups and school counselors who we think can feed students to us as part of the job of a college like Dickinson. We don’t want to be known as the best kept secret. We want to be known widely, but we’re in a sea of a lot of private liberal arts colleges, so we have to continue to get known and make outreach,” Jones said.

Thaddeus Stevens Institute of Technology – a two-year trade school in Lancaster County – has admissions models that rely on recruitment and community engagement, so whether a student decides to mark race and ethnicity on an application does not make much difference in the admissions process.

President Pedro Rivera said equity and inclusion is “built into the school’s DNA,” and it is why the college was founded, so the decision on affirmative action was not going to affect admission policy.  

“When you look at lower enrollment in our in our high schools across the Commonwealth, across Pennsylvania, but you also see that the demographic area for both for both Latinos and African American Black students is growing, we have to focus on preparing that next generation workforce to fit to fill the needs of employers,” Rivera said.

About 71% of students who enrolled at Thaddeus Stevens in fall 2021 were White, and 29% were students of color, according to enrollment data from the federal Department of Education.

The college, which was named after one of the architects of the Equal Protection Clause, visits local schools and goes to college fairs, in part to debunk preconceived ideas about the value of vocational education and create relationships with students who might think they lack the resources to attend college.

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