Ahead of formal guidance from the U.S. Department of Education, education leaders gathered to discuss strategies for reimagining race-conscious admissions, building affordable college pipelines, and creating inclusive campus communities to support student success.

By Rachel Williams, NACAC Communications

Arlington, VA (July 27, 2023) — Education leaders, including NACAC CEO Angel B. Pérez, shared perspectives and solutions for advancing equity in college admission during the U.S. Department of Education’s National Summit on Equal Opportunity in Higher Education.

Organized in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the use of race-conscious admission, the summit, held July 26, featured remarks from U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, a series of panel discussions, and a message about lawful admissions practices to support diversity.

“The court’s decision, as we know, sharply limited a tool that colleges and universities with selective admissions practices have used to create diverse campus communities,” said Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education. “The court did not question the educational value of diverse student bodies. Lawful avenues remain open for colleges and universities to pursue diverse classes.”

Lhamon added: “I have heard about groups who are not the Department of Education or the Department of Justice sending schools notifications about what they say the law is and what they want you to do. I offer you this: You will know when you hear from us.”

Next month, the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice will release guidance for colleges, universities, and counselors on how to move forward with lawful admissions practices.

“We are at a turning point in higher education,” Cardona said. “For decades, the court upheld the consideration of race as one of many factors in admissions to achieve the educational benefits of diversity. Our colleges have lost the most effective tool they’ve ever had in building diverse campuses.”

Panelists and speakers from across the country shared strategies they employ at their own institutions, outside of the use of race-conscious practices, to increase minority student access to higher education in hopes that the approaches will serve as inspiration for others.

One strategy is to build stronger pipelines between institutions, including guaranteed admissions from community colleges to four-year colleges and universities and memorandums of understanding between colleges and K-12 school systems.

There also should be greater communication and collaboration between higher education and high schools, Pérez said during a panel on what’s next in college admission. He urged the leaders in the room to not forget high school counselors at this uncertain time.

“High school counselors and community-based organizations are really facing a lot of anxiety right now,” Pérez said. “They aren’t sure the message they need to send students… It’s important to reaffirm that higher education is committed to diversity. It’s important to partner with institutions of higher education to gather students to explain the [Supreme Court] decision.”

Pérez added that as colleges evolve their admissions process, the goal should be to take the burden off students and counselors. The heavy lifting should be done by institutions, not applicants and the people supporting them.

Other strategies included state legislation to advance equity and increasing resources for students’ basic needs. Illinois, for example, is considering a law that will require state universities to accept credits from community colleges as is, ensuring students don’t need to repeat classes and spend more money upon transferring. In New Mexico, state funding is allocated to support student needs outside of the classroom, such as food security, mental health, and childcare. Retention rates have increased as a result, said Stephanie Rodriguez, secretary of the New Mexico Higher Education Department.

Panelists also widely agreed on the need to simplify the entire admissions process and to question old methods of evaluating students, such as testing and essays, especially for students from underrepresented populations.

Pérez said colleges should be careful to not just focus on adversity in student essays, as not all students of color suffer adversity and they should not be put in the position to write about something they don’t want to write about.

In addition to written guidance from the U.S. Department of Education, Cardona said there will be summits across the country in the coming weeks on career-connected learning and to bridge the divide between K-12 and secondary education. He also said the department is funding a Postsecondary Student Success Grant Competition designed to help colleges implement evidence-based strategies that retain students, especially from underserved backgrounds, through to graduation.

The consensus among the speakers was that the best way to move forward from the Supreme Court’s decision is through collaboration and by learning from each other’s successes. An overarching theme was a plea to not over-correct, as the court’s decision does not prevent institutions from pursuing diversity as part of their missions. “I think the ecosystem in higher education is going to have to come together,” Pérez said. “I think institutions of higher education have to be partners. I’m thrilled that foundations are in the room because diversity is not cheap.”

Representatives of the Biden-Harris administration were at the summit to relay ideas and discussions back to the White House.