Affirmative Action Is Over. Should Applicants Still Mention Their Race?


On a Friday afternoon in July, 87 teenagers with name tags swinging around their necks converged in the dining hall at Nazareth University in Rochester, N.Y. They whizzed between the pizza counter and soda machines before setting their plates on tables, the chorus of the lunchroom growing louder by the minute. The students — rising high school seniors, nearly all Black or Latino — had come for a five-day workshop hosted by PeerForward, a nonprofit organization that helps promising students from low-income communities prepare to apply to college. But this year’s workshop was taking place in something of a changed world: Two weeks earlier, in a pair of high-profile cases challenging Harvard’s and the University of North Carolina’s use of affirmative action, the Supreme Court declared all race-conscious admission programs across the United States to be unlawful, and no one knew what that would mean for students like the ones sitting now in the Nazareth dining hall — least of all them.

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Near the back of the room, two boys, Jordan Williams and Francesco Macias, both from the Bronx, occupied a table laden with pizza crusts. They were enjoying some down time after spending all morning working on their college essays. Jordan, an aspiring lawyer, said he was writing his about one of his favorite movies, “Training Day,” which follows Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke, who play a pair of L.A.P.D. officers. The movie had taught him to question conventional wisdom and to “do the right thing under pressure.” But he was concerned that nothing in his application conveyed that he was Black. This year, in response to the court’s decision, many colleges will hide the box on the Common App that indicates the applicant’s race, so Jordan was thinking about adding something about it to his essay. “I probably have to say that I’m a Black kid from the Bronx, I guess,” he said. “I think a quick phrase will be enough.”

Francesco, who was shyer and wore thick-rimmed glasses and a baseball cap, had been hunched over his phone before I came over and was contemplating that same question. “I’m a bit hesitant about showing my race,” he said. He wasn’t sure whether it would now count against him to talk about being Latino. Instead, he was writing about a leather briefcase he bought for $10 at a thrift store, which helped him feel more professional, get better grades and make friends at school. He was sure that his story of transformation from quiet, lonely kid to straight-A student would leave a bigger impression on admissions officers than writing, as he put it, “I’m from this neighborhood, or I’m this ethnicity.” But the more he talked about it, the more he started to doubt himself. “I guess I could if I really wanted to, I could put one thing,” he said, “but then it really doesn’t — ’cause my story is like — I want them to read something about me that lets them remember me.”

Francesco (second from left) and Jordan (middle) during the July PeerForward workshop in Rochester.
Victor Llorente for The New York Times

Francesco’s family is from Ecuador. His grandparents immigrated to the Corona neighborhood in Queens in the 1960s. His grandfather worked a job doing laundry at a hospital and sent money back to his family in his home country. Francesco’s mother took out loans to put herself through Baruch College and is now an executive assistant for the chief financial officer of Peloton. His father, who didn’t go to college, joined the Navy; he is now a building technician. Francesco is a rising senior at All Hallows High School, an all-boys private Catholic school in the South Bronx. It was not his parents’ plan to enroll him in private school, but Francesco was recruited by a scout who, on one fateful day, came across his submission at a middle-school science fair: a Tesla coil he built after watching a documentary about its inventor on the History Channel. “I saw the wiring diagram,” he said, “and I thought, Hmm, maybe I could build this.”

Francesco told me he had fantasized about attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since he was about 12. As a kid, he watched YouTube videos of engineers building “awesome contraptions” that involved exploding Coke bottles and roving hoverboards, and it would come up time and again that many of these engineers had gone to M.I.T. Francesco had done everything in his power to make himself an attractive applicant. He had more extracurriculars to list than the Common App had space for: A third-degree black belt in taekwondo, community service, student government, engineering club, woodworking, a computer-science program with Google and a school production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights,” in which he was an understudy for the role of Kevin Rosario, Nina’s overprotective father, were just a few of them. But his test scores were below M.I.T.’s average, and he feared his chances of getting in had been hurt further by the recent ban on affirmative action. “I guess I’m kind of at a disadvantage because I kind of lost that,” he said.

M.I.T., which admitted just 4.8 percent of its applicants last year, was one of many highly selective American universities that practiced race-conscious admissions until the court’s decision this summer. Though these elite colleges represent only a sliver of American higher-education institutions, they are known for their outsize ability to help students who grew up in low-income households become high earners after graduation. But now that explicitly weighing race in admissions is unlawful, enrollment of Black and Latino students at these top-tier schools is likely to fall immediately — in part because colleges’ fears of legal retribution and court scrutiny may outweigh their interests in maintaining racial diversity. An amicus brief filed with the Supreme Court by top liberal arts colleges including Amherst, Williams and Middlebury projects that “the percentage of Black students matriculating would drop from roughly 7.1 percent of the student body to 2.1 percent” on their campuses. There’s also precedent to look at: When the University of California became subject to an affirmative-action ban in 1998, Black and Latino enrollment fell as much as 40 percent at Berkeley and U.C.L.A. within a single year. Even if colleges manage to maintain their diversity goals, they are wary of legal action from determined anti-affirmative-action opponents that are on the lookout for, as one admissions dean put it, “any institution that doesn’t see a dip.”

Victor Llorente for The New York Times

Colleges and universities across the country are scrambling to find legal means of maintaining the levels of diversity they would like to see. Though barred from actively using race as a factor, they will still “see” race in signifiers such as name, ZIP code and, perhaps most notable, what students say about themselves in their essays. But this also means that this year’s class of high school seniors — the first to apply under the affirmative-action ban — must read the signals sent by colleges about how to articulate their case for admission correctly and effectively. They are living in a swirl of uncertainty, confusion and misinformation about an admissions process that has suddenly been made more opaque and bewildering. Rather than clarifying the role of race in the application process, the court has instead created a new burden for students: They must now decide whether, and how, to make race a part of their pitch for admission.

In charting their new course, colleges and universities are looking to a key passage in Chief Justice John Roberts’s opinion, in which he explains how to treat race when it inevitably comes up in students’ applications. “Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration or otherwise,” he wrote. But “universities may not simply establish through application essays or other means the regime we hold unlawful today.” He continued: “A benefit to a student who overcame racial discrimination, for example, must be tied to that student’s courage and determination. Or a benefit to a student whose heritage or culture motivated him or her to assume a leadership role or attain a particular goal must be tied to that student’s unique ability to contribute to the university. In other words, the student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual — not on the basis of race.”

“I think people are scratching their heads wondering, well, what did Justice Roberts mean by that exactly, and how is it going to be tested?” Jeff Brenzel, a former dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale, told me. Brenzel is currently a trustee at Morehouse College, where he is helping its board work through how the ruling will affect admissions. “How is it going to be interpreted at the individual school level? I think that’s a matter of tremendous uncertainty.” The Biden administration, which finds itself in the position of enforcing a decision it dislikes, recently released a letter trying to help parse Roberts’s position: Schools cannot give an automatic boost to students of a particular race, it read, but they “remain free to consider any quality or characteristic of a student” even if that quality or characteristic is tied to a life experience shaped by the student’s race.

Two and a half weeks after the ruling, I asked Matthew McGann, the head of admissions at Amherst College, how he would apply Roberts’s reasoning to a particular example: If an applicant’s extracurriculars include the Black Student Union, how would that have been considered before and after the ruling? “That cannot be put in the context of” — he stopped himself, pausing for 10 seconds. “I think the — so understanding a student’s participation in an activity through a lens of racial status is something that at the very least cannot be as easily done anymore. We are still working on our training and guideline language on how the admissions staff should approach these questions.” McGann told me he is confident that his staff will be able to sort this out before reading applications this fall.

Even as colleges are still figuring out what is legal or illegal, they are taking steps toward compliance. As of August, at least 20 selective schools, including several in the Ivy League, had introduced new supplemental-essay prompt language for this application cycle that adheres closely to the ruling and seems to guide students along the tightrope that Roberts has laid out for them. These new essay questions direct students to talk about their identity in terms of their lived “experiences” and ask them to tie it to “unique contributions” to their campus — all language drawn from Roberts’s passage. In essence, the colleges are asking students to respond indirectly to Roberts and provide the kind of answers that Roberts himself would deem permissible considerations of racial identity. These supplemental prompts represent a new kind of diversity essay question, replacing the old kind that relied on a previous Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action.

Victor Llorente for The New York Times

In previous years, Brown University asked students to write about “a time you were challenged by a perspective that differed from your own.” That prompt invited stories that fit into the older rationale for affirmative action, established in the 1978 Bakke case, which held that by belonging to a minority group, an applicant contributed something meaningful to a school’s educational diversity. “A farm boy from Idaho can bring something to Harvard College that a Bostonian cannot offer,” Justice Lewis Powell wrote in the majority opinion, quoting from an earlier brief written by Archibald Cox. “Similarly, a Black student can usually bring something that a white person cannot offer.” But today’s court no longer finds that rationale compelling. Brown’s new essay prompt asks students to reflect “on where they came from” and “share how an aspect of your growing up has inspired or challenged you,” which nudges students toward responses that the school may be able to consider safely by asking them to reflect on a part of their identity and — if they choose to talk about their race — to link it to an inspiration or challenge, as Roberts suggests.

“It’s a fine gradation, but the distinction would be between adversity and diversity,” says Richard Kahlenberg, a scholar who favors class-conscious admissions and testified against Harvard and University of North Carolina in the twin cases that led to the court’s affirmative-action decision this summer. His view is that an essay about race as a lived experience, such as the overcoming of racial discrimination, could be counted as “an adversity” and therefore is a fairer justification of admission — one that could apply to Asian Americans, “the group most disadvantaged by the current system.” On the other hand, an essay that talks about “how race is central to their identity” and how a student therefore could “contribute something” to the learning environment is a weaker justification of admission in light of this new ruling.

In a world where every student of color will need a race-neutral justification for admission, that justification may increasingly have to do with a show of grit or resilience or an overcoming of adversity. But Art Rodriguez, dean of admissions at Carleton College, made clear that to say someone has overcome adversity could not simply become a back channel to boost exclusively Black or Latino students. “If we’re giving students credit for saying that they’ve demonstrated resilience somehow and they conveyed that based on their identity and racial background by overcoming some challenge, then we have to give that same credit to a student overcoming some adversity — maybe it was a parent died and they overcame that adversity and the challenge that they dealt with in the loss of a parent,” he says. “There is no racial dimension. But they’ve demonstrated some resilience. We just have to be fair and give that other student credit for that resilience.”

I asked McGann how a student of color who is applying to college this year should make sense of all these changes. “I would hope that that student would know that nothing about this changes who they are,” he said. “And it’s incumbent upon the colleges to do the lawful work that allows them to best identify those students who will fit in with their missions. It’s not the student’s job. The student should present themselves as wholly and fully and as best they can, and it’s on the colleges to lawfully consider and have an admissions process that allows them to live up to their mission.”

Victor Llorente for The New York Times

After lunch, Francesco and the rest of the students filed back into classrooms, where they would continue workshopping their college essays in various small groups, with PeerForward’s volunteer coaches. As I visited different groups, I happened upon one classroom where a debate about affirmative action had just broken out. I came in right as a student named Jaslaudi Ramirez, who had long braids and was sitting with her back against a window, was saying she didn’t understand the negative reaction to the Supreme Court ruling.

“Why is it bad?” she asked. If a college wanted to accept her just because she’s Black, she said, then she wouldn’t want to go there anyway.

The room fell silent. Derry Oliver, a student from Brooklyn wearing her hair high in a ponytail, flashed her braces and raised her hand to respond. “I agree to a certain extent,” she said. Like Jaslaudi, she thought it was insulting to imagine that a school would accept her just because she was Black. But, she continued, “race should be considered.” Doing away with it entirely would mean “getting rid of that one part that made up a whole of your merit, your activities and who you are as a person.”

Before Jaslaudi could respond, the writing coach, Patrice Edwards, gently tried to redirect the class’s attention to their essays. “So how do we feel about our second drafts?” she asked.

In the aftermath of the ruling, PeerForward had decided not to change the way it coaches students, partly because colleges themselves are still figuring out the new admissions process, and also because it doesn’t want students to fixate on things out of their control. “They don’t need yet another thing on their plate,” Gary Linnen, the chief executive of PeerForward, told me. The priority is to keep them on track toward applying to college. PeerForward is one of hundreds of community-based organizations in the country working to close the college-access gap: It encourages ambitious students in low-income communities to inspire academic achievement in their peers, and also lobbies directly with admissions offices on behalf of its students. But just how much of a leg up the kind of personalized coaching in its workshops can give in the post-ruling world, neither the students nor the organization can say for sure.

Edwards invited each student to read aloud his or her second draft, while the other students took notes on what stood out. “Infinity has the potential to be everything and nothing, just like people,” Jaslaudi wrote. “I am expected to be everything they are and more,” another student wrote, referring to a number of outside social pressures. “Old me gives up quick,” a third student wrote. “New me gives up quick but goes right back after it.” On poster paper at the front of the class, Edwards jotted down key phrases, using Crayola markers each student had chosen. By the end of the session, each student had a piece of poster paper with the phrases and ideas that the student’s peers found most interesting, which would help them narrow down the topics of their essays. The personal essay on a college application is crucial because it “shows their why,” Linnen told me. “A number can’t describe your resiliency and your connection to community.”

Down the hall, another group of PeerForward students had just finished their first drafts when I came in. I was curious to know if the teenagers had been following the court cases, so their writing coach, Tyree Bell, took a poll: “Has anyone heard about the Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action?” About half raised their hands. One of them, Rayne Rivera-Forbes, told me she learned about the ruling on her Instagram story feed — something I also heard from several other students. Rayne identifies as Afro-Latina and was raised by a single mother, a military veteran, who has been the primary inspiration in her life. She is a student representative on her county school board in Maryland and wants to run for Congress one day.

“I just feel a bit lost,” she said. She didn’t want to write her essay about race, but now that the race box is gone, she feels she should at least mention it. “I’m a strong applicant academically, but I don’t have the highest G.P.A. or test scores in the world,” she said. “I have so much more to me, especially the community I come from. If that’s not taken into consideration, I don’t feel like I’ll be properly recognized.”

Rayne saw the court’s ruling as taking away opportunities from students of color; she pulled out her phone from her back pocket to show me an article she found through Instagram about the University of Missouri system’s dropping all race-based scholarships at the order of the state’s attorney general, a move that went beyond the wording of the ruling. She read aloud a line from the article about the president of the University of Kentucky targeting similar scholarships. “Some of my peers said, ‘Now I can’t apply to these schools,’” she said.

Victor Llorente for The New York Times

Misinformation was common among the PeerForward students I spoke with. Derry Oliver told me her understanding is that being Black could have been “a plus” under affirmative action (which is true), but now being Black is a “minus” (which is not true). It was easy to see why the students could have that wrong impression. For Derry, affirmative action was a kind of protection that ensured campuses cared about diversity — and so the loss of that protection might now mean campuses can freely discriminate. She told me she knew some students who were planning not to list extracurriculars that signal their race, like being active in the youth arm of the N.A.A.C.P., out of fear that it would count against them. “So now you’re hiding that side of yourself to make others feel better in a way,” she said.

That impulse is familiar to many Asian teenagers, who have sometimes tried to hide their race by “de-Asianizing” their applications. One Asian student I talked to, who applied last year, said he deliberately decided not to check the race box on his college application after seeing YouTube videos and news articles about peers trying to appear less Asian. While students like Rayne are considering leaning more into race, other Black and Latino applicants may, like the Asian student, hide their race over concerns that admissions officers may pigeonhole or stereotype them. These students have mostly been left to their own devices, patching together information drawn from a variety of sources about what they ought to do with their race for their best chance at admission. “There are going to be a lot of unintended consequences,” Brenzel, the former Yale admissions dean, said. “Admissions officers are going to be in a very challenging position this coming year. I certainly see that students are going to be facing equally challenging guessing games about what’s going to enhance or detract from their applications.”

A week after I met Francesco in Rochester, he was back in his room in the Bronx. He had been researching schools on a computer that he and his father built together. Before the Supreme Court ruling, he had decided on a list of 10 to 12 schools, but he now plans to apply to 20, especially because he realized he can have many of the application fees waived. “Twenty is a bit outlandish, but who knows,” he had told me at the workshop. “Maybe I don’t get into 19, and the 20th is my dream school. The more, the better.”

He had also thought about applying to the engineering schools at Columbia and Cornell, but then he hesitated. “They’re more legacy, if I’m not mistaken,” he said, referring to the Ivy League schools. “This is what I heard from other students — they’re saying 50 percent are legacy.” Then again, he remembered, a student in the grade above got a full ride to Dartmouth College. “So it is possible,” he said. “But I’m not trying to get my hopes up too high.” He will apply after all — and also add to the list SUNY Maritime College, which offers an engineering program a 30-minute walk from his house. As a way to ease the financial burden for his parents, he is planning to apply for the Navy Reserve Officers Training Corps, a scholarship program that would offer him a full ride to an affiliated school as long as he serves at least three years active duty in the Navy.

He recalled the night the Supreme Court ruling came down. He was having dinner with his mother, who made them garlic-and-olive-oil pasta. She asked Francesco if he had heard of affirmative action. Neither of them really knew what it was, but they no doubt intuited the boundless downside of the court’s decision. “She was telling me, even though this happened, you can’t let this stop you from your ambitions. There’s always going to be setbacks in life, and you just have to overcome them.”

Victor Llorente is a portrait, documentary and fashion photographer based in Queens who was born and raised in Spain.


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