Springfield News-Sun

What future admissions at elite schools might look like

- David Leonhardt ©2024 The New York Times

After the Supreme Court banned race-based affirmativ­e action last year, many people in higher education worried it would be only the first in a series of decisions that reduced diversity at selective schools. In particular, university administra­tors and professors thought the court might soon ban admissions policies that gave applicants credit for overcoming poverty. Such classbased policies disproport­ionately help Black, Hispanic and Native students.

For now, though, these worries appear to be misplaced. And the future of admissions at selective colleges and high schools has suddenly become clearer after the Supreme Court on Feb. 20 declined to hear a lawsuit against a public magnet school in Northern Virginia — Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, known as T.J.

Until recently, T.J. admitted students based on a mix of grades, test scores, student essays and teacher recommenda­tions. This process led to a student body that looked very different from the area it served.

About 5% of T.J. students were Black or Hispanic, even though the surroundin­g area is about 37% Black or Hispanic. The school also enrolled few low-income students of every race: Only 2% of Asian students at T.J. came from low-income families, compared with 20% of Asian students in the surroundin­g area.

In 2021, though, T.J. switched to a new admissions policy. It was modeled after a bipartisan plan that Texas created in 1997, under Gov. George W. Bush. In T.J.’S version, the school filled most of its freshman class by accepting the top 1.5% of students at every public middle school in the area.

The underlying idea is simple enough. Many communitie­s in the U.S. are economical­ly and racially homogenous. But a policy that accepts the top students from every community can create diverse classes. The policy is defensible on meritocrat­ic grounds because it rewards teenagers who excel in every environmen­t — and on political grounds because it gives all communitie­s access to desirable schools.

Once T.J. changed its policy, the school became much more diverse. The share of students from low-income families rose to 25% from 2%. Racial diversity also increased.

“I love T.J.,” Kaiwan Bilal, one of the students accepted under the new policy, told The Washington Post. “It’s even better than I expected, better than my parents told me it would be.” Bilal also said that he was struck by the school’s diversity.

The SAT connection

Not everyone favors these changes, of course, and a group of parents and conservati­ve legal activists sued to stop them. Their argument revolved around intent: They said that because T.J. had adopted the new policy with the goal of increasing racial diversity, it was illegal, even though it did not use racial preference­s.

In higher education, many people viewed the lawsuit with alarm. If the Supreme Court ruled against T.J., almost all class-based programs would have been at risk. Racial diversity would most likely plummet, especially in the wake of the ban on race-based policies.

But the court didn’t rule against T.J. Instead, it effectivel­y endorsed class-based programs by refusing even to hear the T.J. case. Only two justices, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas, dissented.

The news has a connection to another story in higher education: the return of the standardiz­ed test requiremen­t at some colleges. On Feb. 22, Yale University announced it would again require test scores from applicants, joining Dartmouth, the Massachuse­tts Institute of Technology, Georgetown and Purdue, among others. At selective colleges like these, standardiz­ed test scores predict academic performanc­e better than high school grades, research shows.

A crucial part of the test requiremen­t, however, is that colleges give applicants credit for overcoming disadvanta­ge. The colleges don’t expect top students from struggling high schools to do as well on the SAT as private-school students. Lower-income students, after all, have been running with the wind in their faces.

“We know society is unequal,” Sian Beilock, Dartmouth’s president, said. “We’re looking for the kids who are excelling in their environmen­t.” Last month’s announceme­nt by the Supreme Court means that schools (including those that don’t require tests) can feel comfortabl­e taking economic disadvanta­ge into account.

Matching public opinion

There is also a broader significan­ce. In these politicall­y polarized times, many liberals distrust the motivation­s of conservati­ves (and vice versa). After the Supreme Court — which is dominated by conservati­ve justices — banned racial preference­s, some liberals assumed that it might start a yearslong campaign against diversity.

For now, though, cynicism seems unjustifie­d, at least on this issue. Most justices are neither universall­y in favor of nor universall­y opposed to diversity programs. Context matters. As it happens, the court has also chosen a position that matches public opinion: Most Americans support class-based admissions policies and oppose race-based policies.

T.J.’S new policy, as Richard Kahlenberg of George Washington University wrote in the journal National Affairs, is “doing what America has been pining after for a quarter-century: pursuing racial and economic diversity without the use of racial preference­s.”

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 ?? KENNY HOLSTON / THE NEW YORK TIMES 2022 ?? Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia, adopted what it said were race-neutral admissions standards. The school’s policy got an OK when the Supreme Court refused to hear a lawsuit against it.
KENNY HOLSTON / THE NEW YORK TIMES 2022 Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia, adopted what it said were race-neutral admissions standards. The school’s policy got an OK when the Supreme Court refused to hear a lawsuit against it.

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