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High Stakes for DEI with Pending Ruling on College Admissions: Overaction or Reasonable Concern?

Updated: Apr 10, 2023

As the U.S. Supreme Court reviews the constitutionality of so-called racial preferences, there’s a lot of talk that a 2003 statement by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor may be given significant weight for reaching a final decision. That statement was a prediction of sorts incorporated into a landmark opinion written by the first woman on the High Court when racial preferences were initially being challenged in the college admissions process. Specifically, as part of the Court opinion, Justice O’Connor said that racial preferences may not be needed 25 years later. However, the Court ruled that there was indeed a compelling interest for diversity and therefore, racial preferences in the college admission process did not violate the Equal Protection Clause under the 14th Amendment. Let’s digest that.

The substance of the opinion is about the constitutionality of promoting diversity. Said promotion of diversity, in this instance, was being orchestrated by giving consideration to a college applicant’s race in the broader context of total student population mix. As part of the conclusion for the ruling in support of using race as a factor in the college admissions process, it was stated: “The Court expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.” A single sentence added to the conclusion of the opinion (and among many more legally substantive sentences) is being given weight that does not appear to have been originally intended when written - the statement is a mere expectation, an assumption, an aspiration, a prediction. If read in it’ entirety, it’s clear that "25 years" was not at all intended as a hard and fast timeline, but rather the focus should be on the second half of that statement which creates a contingency of necessity on the timeline. So the consideration that is most relevant is whether diversity matters today; or, in other words, is it "necessary"?

There's sufficient data based on the facts and circumstances of today to prove that the necessity for diversity is persistent if not an ongoing exigency. And the current Court has seen the evidence of dismal diversity outcomes when (or if) race is removed from the college admissions review process --- not only do admissions decrease but students of color are less inclined to apply, likely feeling defeated before they even try to get accepted into certain elite schools. There are additional implications to equitable and inclusive outcomes for students with low representation at colleges and universities. DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion, as a collective benefit) is the broader issue at play, not only for student applicants but also for the existing student body when diversity is devalued. Therefore, the debate should not be centered on a timeline for no longer considering race as part of the college admissions process; instead, the real question to ask is what benefits are lost when diversity is lacking. Benefits such as: more creativity, more innovation, and improved problem-solving, all of which have direct impacts to a better bottom-line (for educational institutions, for businesses, for charitable organizations, and for society generally).

For those who point to the US Census Bureau's prediction that people of color will be the majority US population in 2050, it should not be lost in that prediction that whites will continue to be the largest racial group. With this type of population shift, nonetheless, it's true that we may see increasing demands for, and interests in, diversity. Recent Glassdoor data shows that 76% of people consider diversity when assessing companies and job opportunities. Similarly, a recent survey of high school students in the Class of 2023 revealed that diversity is what students want most in their college campus environment - diversity with both students and faculty. However, the institutional and structural barriers to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are not going to come crumbling down just because all of the minority groups combined will outnumber whites based on total US population. For people of color, diversity, equity and inclusion have been long-standing challenges. Institutions and organizations will have to be intentional with DEI efforts. More importantly, racial and ethnic diversity in college admissions have economic benefits for students (all students) who attend more diverse colleges and universities and thereby can be translated into a competitive advantage for institutions that make DEI a priority. For example, data from a 2013 study showed that students from diverse colleges earned 5% more than other students and those students also had about a 3.5% higher family income. That's a statistic that can be used to attract students to colleges that might not otherwise have an appeal. Valuable, data-driven proof to demonstrate diversity as a factor in contributing to the sustainability of institutions. Yet, we have a case before the US Supreme Court that has very few lifelines available to protect advancing diversity in college admissions.

Until and unless diverse (as well as equitable and inclusive) outcomes naturally take shape like expectations assumed from the free market theory, then the case for intentional and strategic diversity will remain a necessity. In organizations today, including colleges and universities, data proves that human behavior has not yet accomplished a utopia for equal access to opportunities regardless of race (or other demographics such as gender, age, sexual orientation, disability status, etc.). We're 20 years in from the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling that there was indeed a compelling interest for diversity using race as a consideration in college admissions. That leaves at least 5 more years to go if we're going to give significance to Justice O'Connor's fortuitous (or better yet, aspirational) prediction in the Court's 2003 opinion. The truth is that we are not at this inflection point today - not even close, in my humble opinion. Thus, the legal protections for racial preferences as a matter of strategic diversity in college admissions should live on. The implications of a decision against the colleges in this case are grave ---- after all, diversity is simply about differences that extend far beyond racial demographics (for example, generational, abilities (physical and mental such as cognitive/neurodiversity), gender identity, geographic location, income status, backgrounds, sexual orientation, age, religion, national origin, etc. The D, the E and the I in DEI are at stake and given the data-proven DEI benefits to organizations, businesses and colleges alike, a decision against the colleges will inevitably threaten those benefits and advantages. What are your thoughts about the pending U.S. Supreme Court decision about the college admissions process and its impact on DEI? #diversity #diversityequityinclusion #DEI #diversitymatters #inclusionmatters #equitymatters #freemarkettheory #strategicdiversity #affirmativeaction #scotus

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