June 4, 2023

Each year, the approximately one million students who apply to college through the Common App are given the option to check a box, indicating whether they identify as Hispanic, Asian, Black, or White, among other choices.

With the U.S. Supreme Court expected to rule against race-conscious admissions soon — and with colleges looking to follow the law — the Common App has taken a preemptive step on what’s known as the “race box.”

From 1 August, universities of applied sciences can hide the information in those boxes of their own admissions teams, Common App CEO Jenny Rickard said in an interview.

The new option will help colleges meet “any legal standard the Supreme Court will set regarding race in admissions,” Common App said in a statement. Common App, a non-profit organization, operates a universal application used by more than 1,000 colleges and universities.

The decision, which appears to be aimed at safeguarding colleges from lawsuits, is one of the first concrete examples of how college admissions can be transformed if the Supreme Court bans or restricts race-conscious admissions. The university’s opt-out could also put more pressure on applicants to express their racial and ethnic background in other ways, primarily in essays or faculty recommendations.

The scope of the court’s ruling, which is expected at the end of June, is unknown. But the judges showed great interest in the use of racing boxes during oral arguments last fall.

Colleges have said they will follow the law, but are wary of future lawsuits. Anti-affirmative action groups have said they could file lawsuits that could test the limits of the Supreme Court’s ruling.

The potential case against race boxes is obvious, according to Edward Blum, founder of Students for Fair Admissions, the plaintiffs in the current lawsuits against Harvard and the University of North Carolina.

“If racial affiliations are found to be illegal, then it must follow that racial classification boxes should not be allowed on college application forms,” ​​he said.

Masking the race boxes on the Common App could give universities a degree of plausible deniability, legal experts said, and perhaps some protection from lawsuits.

Essays are a less likely target for lawsuits. In practice, it would be difficult to remove mentions of race from the many thousands of application essays colleges receive each year, with more than 50,000 applicants at Harvard alone.

But more lawsuits around the broader issue of diversity, such as scholarships for black students, seem likely. “There is a colossal, well-organized, well-funded attack agenda,” said Art Coleman, managing partner of Education Counsel, a consulting firm that works with universities on Supreme Court cases.

During oral arguments, the Supreme Court justices spent a lot of time discussing the race box and application essay. A variant of the phrase “checking the box” was used more than 30 times during the five-hour discussion before the judges last October.

Patrick Strawbridge, an attorney for Students for Fair Admissions, argued with the judges about when it would be appropriate for admissions officers to know an applicant’s race. He suggested that much would depend on the context of the revelation.

“What we object to is a consideration of race and race in itself,” Mr Strawbridge told the judges.

“Race in a box-checking fashion, as opposed to racing in an experiential statement?” Judge Amy Coney Barrett, one of the conservative majority expected to be sympathetic to the plaintiffs, clarified.

Mr. Strawbridge said it would be more difficult to object to a thoughtful essay that evoked the student’s race in the context of a deeply personal story.

An essay on overcoming racial discrimination could be allowed because it “clearly shows that the applicant has perseverance, that the applicant has overcome some hardship,” Mr Strawbridge told the judges. “It tells you something about the applicant’s character and experience other than their skin color.”

Isiaah Crawford, president of the University of Puget Sound, said he hoped the court would agree with Mr. Strawbridge on that point.

“We certainly believe that prospective students should have the First Amendment right to speak about their background if they so choose,” said Dr. Crawford.

If discussion of a student’s race were completely ruled out, he said, a white candidate for an Ivy League school might be able to write about being the child of an alumna, while a black student might not be able to’ to talk about his or her’. background, whose grandparents were denied admission to schools like the Ivy League, and how that influenced their choices.”

The Common App will continue to collect racial information for its own purposes, such as looking at trends in applications among different groups, regardless of how the Supreme Court decides, Ms. Rickard said. Since the non-profit does not admit students, it is unlikely to be a target of lawsuits.

Colleges will be able to suppress racial information from both the printable and digital forms of applications. The Common App already allows colleges to hide test score information if they don’t factor test scores into admissions. Colleges have also been able to hide students’ social security numbers, dates of birth, gender and criminal history.

Mr Coleman said he hoped the court’s focus on ticking the box during oral arguments would mean excluding only the most simplistic and stereotyped uses of race in admissions.

Otherwise, he said, trying to hide an applicant’s race would become an exercise in absurdity. For example, during an applicant’s interview, “Should you go behind a curtain?”