The following is a guest contribution and reflects the authors’ views alone. For information on how to submit a piece to the Opinion section, click here.
The end of affirmative action in higher education should not mean the end of diversity at Princeton. In the concluding sentences of her dissent in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, Justice Sonia Sotomayor ’76 declared that “the pursuit of racial diversity will go on … universities can and should continue to use all available tools to meet society’s needs for diversity in education.” President Chrisopher L. Eisgruber ’83 has emphatically reaffirmed that sentiment.
Since the decision was announced, several strategies for how universities such as Princeton may maintain their commitments to diversity have been suggested. Members of the board of the Princeton Progressive Law Society have decided to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of some of these proposals to understand the legal, political, and moral decision-making behind the University’s choice.
The University risks overcompliance with the Court’s decision. For fear of lawsuits and investigations, Princeton might deliberately allow the SFFA ruling to un-diversify its student body.
This is an unacceptable outcome. If a vigorous pursuit of diversity results in legal and financial consequences, so be it. Princeton has long been a national leader — even through litigation in the Supreme Court — in determining how American higher education conducts itself. The extent and design of the University’s response, and how much legal risk it is willing to accept, will influence college campuses across the country.
The options presented, though certainly not equivalent to affirmative action, show some steps Princeton could take. The University should not refuse to take them.
Subjective criteria like essays: safe, defensible, but partial
Already, much of the commentary after the decision has predicted that universities will de-emphasize standardized test scores. White and Asian students on average earn higher scores than their Black and Latino peers. It follows that doubling down on categories measured in subjective terms, such as essays and supplementals, could achieve the goals that affirmative action sought.
The chief advantage of such a strategy is that it has a high likelihood of complying with Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA). Admissions officers could intuit, and consider, an applicant’s race from submitted materials. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life,” yet also warned, “what cannot be done directly cannot be done indirectly.”
We see two complications with the strategy of subjective emphasis. First, as with so many elements of an application, essays can be revised (even written) by a paid tutor or an Ivy-educated parent, doubtlessly an advantage for wealthier applicants. Essay content has been found to be strongly correlated with family income. Second, as Chief Justice Roberts noted in the decision, the use of essays to convey race may place undue pressure on Black and Latino students to write essays about race-related trauma in their lives. This prediction is already the subject of reporting.
Still, so-called diversity essays are already widely offered by college application supplements; NYU’s, for example, asks applicants how they may “shape and grow our diverse community.” The UC Davis School of Medicine even employs a disadvantage scale from 0–99, based on an applicant’s life experiences, among other admissions measures. In short, the turn toward subjective emphasis is a path well-trodden and legally defensible. It is not, however, particularly transformative — and may not, as in the experience of many UC schools, ever recover the diversity that affirmative action ushered in.
Even before the Supreme Court released SFFA, many reformers advocated for a class-based affirmative action, which is geared to assist the economically disadvantaged rather than any specific racial group. It typically requires a means test — often an income cut-off above the poverty line. With members of marginalized groups being vastly over-represented among poorer populations, they may be likely to benefit from a class-based program.
Many scholars, however, contend that class-based affirmative action neglects the history of racism, and that there are aspects of an individual’s identity that cannot be reflected by income. Khiara M. Bridges, a law professor at UC Berkeley, states that she does “not like the narrative of class-based affirmative action, where it tells a story that race or racial problems are over … and that we are living in a world where race doesn’t matter, only class does.”
Class-based affirmative action also cannot provide the same benefits as race-based affirmative action. Studies have found that a change from race-based affirmative action to class-based affirmative action produces dramatic decreases in the number of Black students in universities. One study found that the “possible consequences of a change in law school admissions in the United States … [include] dramatic decreases in the numbers of Black students in top law school tiers, suggesting that class-based affirmative action is insufficient to maintain racial diversity in prestigious law schools.”
There is significant potential for class-based affirmative action to increase socioeconomic diversity at universities like Princeton. When the Daily Princetonian’s Class of 2022 Senior Survey and Frosh Survey for the Class of 2026 are compared with data from the US Census Bureau, Princeton evidently hugely overrepresents students from higher income households. As the Princeton Progressive Coalition pointed out, Princeton is not practicing equitable resource-conscious admissions.
Ultimately, the effect of class-based programs on underrepresented minorities is entirely dependent on how Princeton designs it: who it defines as underserved, how many of those people it seeks to admit, and whether it views the plan as financially tenable.
A third option, ending ALDCs, is transformative but unlikely
Since the decision to eliminate race-conscious college admissions, there has been a cry for an end to long-standing preferential admissions: the ALDCs. This acronym is used to refer to the four groups that conventionally receive admissions preference – athletes, legacies, children of large donors (often recorded on Dean’s Interest Lists), and children of current faculty and staff. The fight for cutting ALDC admissions is led by both sides of the aisle. Justice Sotomayor ’76 and Justice Neil Gorsuch found common ground in their opposition to Harvard’s preference for these four groups.
A study on Harvard admissions by Peter Arcidiancono, an expert witness for Students for Fair Admissions, detailed just how skewed ALDC admissions are. His findings at page 35 revealed that 43% of white admits are ALDCs, compared to less than 16% of African American, Hispanic, and Asian American students. Eliminating ALDC preferences would, in one stroke, improve diversity. Since 2015, 102 universities and colleges have ended their consideration of alumni relations in the admissions process. However, many elite universities, ours included, have made no public effort to decrease ALDC preferences, for reasons described below.
Princeton has the capacity to end ALDC preference in the admissions process, but there are some factors that may keep the University from doing so. The same paper from Peter Arciancono concluded that admitting legacies is mostly a financial strategy, since legacy students are less likely to need financial aid and more likely to donate to the school as an alum. Randall Kennedy, author and professor at Harvard Law, offered an opposing argument to ending legacy admissions during his lecture with the Progressive Law Society — that eliminating legacy preference now would be a slap in the face to those alumni of color who, often for the first time, are becoming legacy families themselves. ALDC admissions have been around in some form since the dawn of elite education institutions — it’s unlikely they will ever go away completely. But stripped of its rights to affirmative action, Princeton should consider proposals to curtail ALDC preferences — and to absorb potential financial costs —if they are committed to creating more inclusive and diverse student bodies.
The University should be a leader in the national effort to cultivate and maintain diversity on campuses. Princeton’s mission statement promises to “advance learning through scholarship, research, and teaching of unsurpassed quality.” Any such quality is contingent upon a community in which people from all backgrounds can thrive intellectually, socially, and emotionally.
While we have outlined possible alternatives to affirmative action post-SFFA v. Harvard, none can or will ever explicitly make admissions decisions based upon race. Affirmative action allowed schools to consider and account for the effect that American society’s historic annihilation of opportunity has had on its children of color. It allowed schools to invest in the potential of these students. It must be recovered as much as possible.
This, however, is impossible if the University is too cautious. When the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was terminated in 2017, Princeton University challenged the decision, taking the fight all the way to the Supreme Court. In a statement to TIME regarding the challenge, President Eisgruber, alongside Microsoft president Brad Smith, wrote “talent, from every source and background, is the lifeblood of innovation.” With that same zeal, Princeton must put forth a plan that addresses the continuous presence of racial injustice in this country.
We implore Princeton to take steps as far as the limits of the law provide to progress on the issue of race, not to turn backward as our highest court suggests we do, and to do so in a way that truly promotes diversity on campus and invests in the potential of historically underrepresented groups.
This guest contribution was submitted by Luke Carroll, Gigi Schrier, Charlotte Myers, Petra Knupp, and Riley Yowell, who are rising sophomores and members of the Board of The Princeton Progressive Law Society. The Princeton Progressive Law Society is Princeton’s largest law-lecture society with more than 350 undergraduate members. They can be found at progressivelaw.princeton.edu or on Instagram at @princetonproglaw.