How to achieve real diversity in higher education


But this post argues that eliminating those tests as admissions requirements doesn’t come close, by itself, to achieving a truly diverse college campus.

It was written by Osamudia James, a law professor at the University of Miami and a 2020 Public Voices Fellow. She last wrote on this blog about why America’s educational responses to the novel coronavirus pandemic will leave students of color further behind their white counterparts than they were before the crisis. (You can follow her on Twitter at @ProfOsamudiaJ.)

By Osamudia James

In a move that reverberated throughout American higher education, the University of California recently announced its intention to phase out the SAT and ACT from the admissions process. By 2025, neither test will be considered in student applications, a decision that some members of the UC system’s governing board believe will be more fair for poor and minority students.

Although a positive development for broadened access to postsecondary education, particularly at selective institutions in the system, the elimination of standardized tests is a necessary, but not sufficient, step for achieving genuine diversity in higher education.

Concerns regarding the connection between standardized tests and diversity are perennial, and elite colleges and universities have always understood the costs that reliance on the tests exact on student demographics. Minority enrollment in the UC system, for example, dropped precipitously at some UC schools after the consideration of race in the admissions process was prohibited even as reliance on standardized testing continued.

The dive necessitated “race-neutral” interventions that never yielded the same levels of racial diversity as before the ban. Ultimately, the attempt of other university systems to defend race-conscious admissions — necessary as long as the institutions relied so heavily on test scores that often reflect economic racial privilege — percolated up to the Supreme Court in 2003.

In the opinions affirming diversity that the challenges yielded, then-Justice Sandra Day O’Connor ignored arguments championing the pursuit of racial diversity in admissions as a counter to excessive reliance on standardized tests that operate as a linchpin in America’s racial caste system, or as an attempt to remediate the historical exclusion of black people from the nation’s most selective institutions.

Instead, O’Connor amplified corporate interests that advanced diversity as key to producing employees capable of effectively competing in a globalized workplace.

Colleges and universities subsequently adopted diversity-lite, a justification that functioned as a poor stand-in for a more substantive commitment to racial equality. This superficial deployment of diversity facilitates the use of people of color to enhance optics or fend off critique, to reap reputational benefits when diversity “sells,” or worse, to co-opt progressive movements in service of exclusionary goals.

This corporatized version of diversity primes white people and institutions to think about diversity as expendable — initiatives to be adopted when convenient for training and exchange, but ultimately discarded when no longer easy to use. Once a few token slots are filled, whites, freed from any obligation to recognize how their political and cultural needs have always been prioritized, are increasingly likely to label attempts to further broaden access as “unfair” — a characterization that neatly plugs into already-existing mythology about the “free rides” that people of color purportedly enjoy.

Now inconvenient, diversity itself is attacked, sometimes even pitting minority groups against each other in the effort. Disconnected from what is just, superficial deployments of diversity usher in false equivalencies, such that white nativism, on the rise, is affirmed as legitimate discourse in service of a “diversity of viewpoints.”

Racial diversity matters, however, because of how race operates in American life. Racism is about dominance — using political and cultural power to maximize white access to resources, opportunities, and esteem, and to make that monopoly appear natural and justified. The elimination of standardized tests may yield more racially diverse applicant pools and entering classes, but schools truly concerned about racial inequality must account for that continued monopoly, even after admission.

This is not always easy to engage in higher education, and is further complicated by other factors such as ethnicity, language, and class. Still, institutions must attempt to dismantle the unfair disadvantages and advantages associated with race, always paying attention not just to numbers, but to pipelines, to climate, to leadership, to power.

Thinking about diversity in this way moves us past mere token representation to questioning how resources are distributed, who makes decisions, what behaviors are incentivized, which group outcomes are prioritized, and who does, and doesn’t, get to tell their stories.

As the string of student protests that broke out on campuses several years ago highlighted, this deeper, more substantive commitment to diversity implicates not just admissions, but changes to student recruitment, faculty hiring, curriculum, and even how colleges and universities acknowledge their past and present complicity in racial subordination.

Further, as the more recent protests against police brutality should remind us, racial subordination off campus is connected to racial subordination on. After all, what good is diversity on the college greens if colleges partner with police that unjustifiably level violence against the communities from which students of color hail?

The University of California’s announcement may accelerate a broader movement away from standardized testing in admissions. It may also provide respite from litigation, as test score disparities among admitted students have been evidentiary focal points in admissions litigation, even in lawsuits filed by groups sympathetic to affirmative action.

If successful, however, this shift will be the elimination only of a formal obstacle to diversity and inclusion. On the ground, our impoverished notions of diversity continue to warp the college and university experience, papering over difficult questions about how race draws the contours of access, belonging, and inclusion.

Now that the barriers of standardized testing are falling, the real work of justice in higher education begins.





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