How does race affect college admissions?

Each year, conversations surrounding race in college admissions enter the news cycle. Are certain demographics held to a higher standard? Are your children at risk of automatically being rejected? Are students earning their spots in the top colleges?

In this article, we will discuss the history of race in college admissions and why race is considered in admissions decisions. Discussing race in college admissions can be a sensitive topic and requires a lot of nuances, and I look forward to guiding you through this historical journey!

How does race affect college admissions?

History of Race in College Admissions

Supreme Court and College Admissions

The concept of Affirmative Action was created during President John F. Kennedy’s tenure. President Kennedy issued an executive order with the goal of diversifying college classrooms. His executive order was then modified and introduced again by President Lyndon Johnson, prohibiting public companies from discriminating based on religion, gender, and race – public colleges and universities were included in this new executive order, fundamentally changing the college admissions process.

To rapidly diversify colleges and universities and improve their credibility with the new executive orders, admissions officers began to use racial quotas. Racial quotas were intended to improve diversity across campuses by allocating a certain number of seats each year to underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. For example, schools had the ability to require that 10% of admitted students be Latinx and 15% be Black students.

Racial quotas, however, were short-lived as their ethics were challenged in the Supreme Court. In the 1978 case Regents v. Bakke, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public universities could not enforce racial quotas. Although racial quotas were no longer allowed, the U.S. Supreme Court would allow public universities to still consider race as a factor in admissions decisions. During the final ruling, Harvard University was listed as a school that used the best admissions process while maintaining a race-conscious approach. Harvard would take a student’s racial background as one of many other factors into consideration when they reviewed applications. This would allow Harvard to still review the student as an individual rather than a statistic for racial quotas.

Fast forward to 1996, when two major cases regarding race in college admissions occurred. In a state-wide ruling, California passed Proposition 209, prohibiting in-state public universities from using race as a factor in their admissions process. In 1996, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit took on Hopwood v. Texas. At the end of the case, the court ruled that the University of Texas School of Law could not use race in the admissions process to diversify the student body. This ruling would impact Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.

However, in 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the Hopwood v. Texas decision. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Grutter v. Bollinger that the United States Constitution did not prevent the use of race in college admissions, meaning that race can legally be considered in schools’ individual admissions process as one of several factors.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld its decision on affirmative action in its most recent case in 2016 – Fisher v. University of Texas. The court had ruled that UT – Austin’s race-conscious undergraduate admissions did not violate the Equal Protection Clause by considering race as a factor in their admissions process.

Based on this long history, the idea of using race in the college admissions process is highly contested. Although these court cases indicate that considering race can help with diversity, one may still wonder why diversity won’t thrive on its own in these spaces. This can lead to many asking why consider race at all.

Why is race considered in the admissions process?

Before we touch upon this very important question, I want to first establish that the consideration of race is not as large of a phenomenon as the news claims it to be. According to the National Association of College Admissions Counseling 2019 “State of College Admission” report, only 6.8% of colleges state that ethnicity or race has a “considerable” influence in their admissions process. 17.8% of colleges indicate that race or ethnicity only has a “moderate influence” in their admissions process, and 16.9% say it has “limited influence.” That leaves 58.5% of colleges stating that race or ethnicity has no influence on their decisions regarding admissions.

By considering race in the admissions process, elite universities can have a more nuanced approach when reviewing students’ applications. For example, high-income students who come from well-funded schools have more AP courses to take since they will be more widely available. However, in less funded schools, AP courses may not be available. For an admissions officer, this nuance can help differentiate between a student who has taken the 2 AP courses offered at their school compared to a student who only took 5 out of the 15 available AP courses. Admissions officers will favor the student who is maxing out their available rigor rather than admitting the student who is not taking advantage of the rigorous courses in their school. Now, what does race have to do with this? Both Black and Latinx students are more likely to attend less funded schools with little to no core college prep courses.

The same argument can be said about test scores. Black students, on average, earn lower SAT and ACT scores. These lower averages are due to the lack of available test-prep, whether in-school or through private tutors. Black students who are earning scores above the average with little to no resources will have the admissions counselor excited at their potential if given the same resources as their white counterparts.

These nuances are allowing admissions officers to dive deeper into the applications that they read. However, they are not used as a preference due to one’s race. Rather, admissions officers are evaluating potential given the learning environment and available resources for each student. Furthermore, race is still one of MANY factors when admitting students into elite colleges. Take for example the University of Maryland; UMD boasts a holistic review process and even provides a list of the 26 factors they review (Seriously. You can check it out here.) In this list, race and ethnicity are just two factors out of 26! Although not every college is this transparent, this is often the case for most colleges.

Harvard, for example, has stated that the race of a student acts as a tip or plus factor which can help differentiate between two very similar students where one is from an underrepresented background. However, other tips include socio-economic status, athletic connection, and legacy – just to name a few. Admissions officers will never use race to place an average student above a highly competitive candidate.


At the end of the day, race truly is just one of many factors in the admissions process. Colleges and universities are primarily focused on increasing or retaining their high graduation rates. Regardless of race, colleges and universities want to ensure that any student attending will have access to the best resources to succeed and graduate to become a successful alum. At Solomon Admissions Consulting, our goal is to help students successfully achieve placement in the best possible schools. Contact us if you need a consultation.

All of our blog posts are written by Former College Admission Officers who serve as members of our admission consultant team.

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