Affirmative Action and the Future of Diversity Initiatives in Higher Education

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Last week, the Supreme Court sent Fisher v. The University of Texas at Austin—a case in which a white student denied admission challenged the university’s use of race– back to the 5th circuit court for further review. Although this ruling did not discard affirmative action altogether and universities and colleges who admit students based on race can continue to do so, the debate about alternative ways to cultivate diversity in higher education institutions has intensified. Some argue that more policies beyond affirmative action are needed to increase both racial and socio economic diversity and many colleges are taking steps to implement multiple ways to make sure diversity happens.

The University of Texas at Austin’s President Bills Powers expressed how, “for many years, [UT Austin] has been a leading advocate for diversity in higher education. As we argued before the Court, we believe a diverse student body is critical to education of all students. It creates a rich learning environment that prepares young people for life in an increasingly global society.” Many universities, like UT Austin, look for multiple ways to ensure that their student bodies are diverse to improve the quality of the education they provide.

From outreach programs that reach racial and income diverse high school constituencies in admissions recruiting to college initiatives dedicated to reaching out to first-generation and underrepresented college students, universities across the country are cultivating diversity from all angles

NerdScholar talks to experts and highlights programs that cultivate diversity with methods beyond affirmative action to increase diversity in higher education.

Increasing the diversity of the college application pipeline through outreach programs to middle and high school students

Outreach programs are a growing crucial factor that helps colleges increase diversity in schools because they expose high achieving low-income and racially diverse students to the prospect of going to college. As a result, they feel much more empowered to apply and learn the steps to do so.  Some of these programs are a highly prominent tool to increase diversity in states like California, Florida, Michigan, and Washington, where affirmative action is not an option.

At the University of Florida, the office admissions engages with the community through their “Outstanding High School Scholars Program”, which encourages students and parents to visit and talk with admission counselors and university departments. Their main goal is to introduce high-achieving high school juniors to the opportunities available at the University of Florida during the summer prior to their senior year. They also have shadow days where students can be a “Gator for a day” to really get the feel of what it would be like to go to College.  Programs like this one help expose students of all backgrounds.

Even in states where affirmative action is still allowed, like Georgia, we see additional ways to recruit students of diverse backgrounds. At The University of Georgia, the admissions office has a pre-collegiate initiative meant to reach students from an early age. This joint effort by the Fanning Institute, the university’s public service unit, and the UGA admissions office, has helped the university embed itself into the community, increase college access, and has increased their applicant pool as well.

According the University of Florida, “Programs from many UF colleges, institutes, and centers provide students with the opportunity to explore career fields, participate in tutoring services, receive academic guidance and get a better sense of what it means to be a college student.” Getting involved in the community’s local college can be a game changer for underrepresented students.

The New York Times’ Richard Perez-Pena described the situation this way, “Opponents of affirmative action welcome [income based diversity]…arguing that race-conscious admissions favor minority applicants who are not disadvantaged, and people on both sides of the issue contend that colleges should do more to achieve socioeconomic diversity.” Doing early outreach increases the racial and socio economic diversity of the college’s applicant pipeline.

At The University of Texas at Austin, programs that engage with the community are paramount to increasing diversity as well. Not only do they have Advise TX, which hires recent UT graduates to work at local high schools for a year to teach students the college application process, but they also are developing innovative pilot programs that engage students in specific subject matters like science, technology, engineering, and math.

Most recently, UT Austin’s Intellectual Entrepreneurship Program, which puts together graduate student-college student mentorships, is going into new territory with their “It Could Be U/IE Mentoring and College Readiness Camp.” The IE program, known for impacting diversity, has partnered with the Media Communications Council (MCC) to provide intensive mentoring and college readiness services for middle and high school age students throughout Austin.

“Going beyond traditional recruitment and affirmative action programs, IE empowers students to discover their passion and produce an entrepreneurial plan enabling them to construct a pathway to college. To increase diversity in a race neutral era we must expand the undergraduate applicant pool, and one way to do that is to enable students to see the connections between their professional aspirations and education-something at the core IE’s approach to education in the past fifteen years,” said Richard A. Cherwitz, Professor and Director of the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Program at UT Austin.

The students participating were put into mentorship partnerships in the areas of business, communication, and STEM and get the opportunity to conduct a special project. For example, IE mentors Justin Jefferson and Albert Espinoza worked with middle school student Gideon Israel and local businessman Hoover Alexander to use their knowledge of science to build an irrigation system for a food garden by applying engineering and science skills.

Engaging students at an early age gives students of diverse backgrounds the opportunity to work with university faculty and realize that college is attainable for them. In turn, Texas is helping create a more diverse college applicant pool in addition to improving these participants’ education.

Cultivating diversity during college and beyond

In addition to outreach programs, colleges are ramping up the way in which they cultivate diversity during and beyond college in order to help these students design and own their education to fit their personal passions and career goals.

In California, Santa Clara University’s LEAD Scholar’s program helps first-generation (students whose parents did not attend college) transition from high school to college in an effective way. The program focuses on academics, community engagement, and service. Not only does the program help the university build a tight-knit community of diverse first-generation students but it also helps them through their senior year by plugging them into internship opportunities, prepare for graduate school, and pursue leadership opportunities.

Similarly, UT Austin’s Intellectual Entrepreneurship students are composed of over 50% first-generation or underrepresented students. They expose undergraduates to graduate school research by pairing them with a graduate school mentor and shadowing, allowing first generation students who had never even thought about grad school a shot at learning what post-graduate education can do for their careers.

Cherwitz put it this way, “From IE we have learned that to increase diversity the applicant pool must be expanded; education must be made transparent and relevant. Moreover, entrepreneurial education and experiences must be available for students at all levels, enabling them to discover how education brings their visions to fruition. Entrepreneurial learning begins with students’ curiosities and goals driving their lives, challenging them to own and be accountable for their educational choices and intellectual development.”

The University of Washington is also making bold moves to foster diversity on campus. For example, their “Initiative for Maximizing Student Development” is meant to support and retain minority students in their STEM curriculum. One of their programs called “Boot Camp” is attended by incoming freshmen with the goal of introducing future STEM students to the math and science course work, learn efficient study techniques, and learn how to navigate the college environment. This ultimately helps UW retain a diverse student body and makes it more likely that students will become involved with research lab experiences and maximize their undergraduate career.

All in all, these programs, which go beyond affirmative action, cultivate diversity before, during, and beyond college. Despite growing challenges to affirmative action, universities will continue to make sure they face this issue with multiple strategies that will benefit their diverse student bodies and improve the quality of education they provide.