By Rachel Williams, NACAC Communications

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court striking down the use of race-conscious admission, faith-based institutions of higher education should consider how their efforts to support underrepresented and minority groups are an exercise of their mission and religious belief in order to remain legally protected. 

This was a takeaway during the panel discussion, A Post-SCOTUS Reality: Analysis and Dialogue About Race-Conscious Admissions, at the 2024 Association of Catholic Colleges & Universities annual meeting.  

The panel included Angel Pérez, NACAC CEO, Ona Alston Dosunmu, president and CEO of the National Association of College and University Attorneys (NACUA), and Jennifer Gniady, partner and co-chair of the nonprofit and religious organizations practice group at Stradley Ronon law firm. 

Gniady urged those in the audience to consider how their institutions’ missions can be expressed in race-relevant language, rather than race-neutral language. 

“There’s a direct connection between the aid we’re providing and the mission we come into this with,” Gniady said. “We must express where our mission is relevant in relation to race.” 

It’s expected that religious schools can look to their right of free exercise of their beliefs as they continue to design and shape their admission practices in the current higher-education landscape, she said.  

However, there is a lot of gray area in the law right now in the wake of the Supreme Court decision, Dosunmu said.  

“Institutions need to strike the right balance between legal risk and mission risk,” said Dosunmu, who passed on a piece of advice one of her members shared: “When you get your first post-SFFA class, your numbers for underrepresented folks in your student body will have either gone down, stayed the same, or increased. I would encourage you to think now about the messaging and narrative around those numbers to your key stakeholders.” 

She also said that the current landscape is an invitation for all institutions to think broadly about their equity agendas and to not limit it to just admission. 

For instance, Pérez is seeing many institutions think about new ways to partner with communities and community-based organizations to expand their applicant pool.  

“The only real control you have is how diverse your actual pipeline is,” he said. “Instead of just going to high schools and CBOs, are we recruiting in the Black church? In Latinx communities?” 

These types of partnerships can help take the burden off high school counselors, who Pérez said are the most important constituency group of colleges and universities.  

“It’s really important to include high school counselors and CBO counselors in your marketing and communication plans,” Pérez said. “How are you bringing them along as your admissions change?” 

The panelists agreed that the ripple effect from the Supreme Court decision is just beginning. The logic is expected to apply to race-specific scholarships and financial aid, and experts suspect pipeline programs and on-campus student activities and supports may be challenged, as well.  

“It’s a year of calibration; have some grace,” Pérez said. “We don’t have all the answers and we don’t yet know how to diversify our institutions despite having less tools.” 

Dosunmu added: “You’re all here because you’re with colleges and universities, but Catholic institutions do a lot of K-12 education in this country. You’re embedded in the same communities — partner with those institutions. This issue wouldn’t be so fraught if the education you receive isn’t dependent on your ZIP code.”