The Common App will now hide a student’s race and ethnicity

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

Now, with the U.S. Supreme Court expected to rule against race-conscious admissions soon — and with colleges keen to follow the law — Common Enforcement has made a preemptive ruling on what is being called the “race box”.

From August 1, colleges will be able to hide information in those boxes from their own admissions teams, Jenny Rickard, executive director of the joint application, said in an interview.

The new option will help colleges comply “with any legal standard that the Supreme Court establishes with respect to race in admissions,” Common App said in a statement. A non-profit common app administers a universal app used by over 1,000 colleges and universities.

The ruling, which appears to be aimed at immunizing colleges from litigation, 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 college opt-out could also put more pressure on applicants to report their racial and ethnic background in other ways, primarily in essays or teacher endorsements.

The scope of the court’s decision, expected at the end of June, is not known. But the judges showed keen interest in using the racing boxes during oral arguments last fall.

The colleges have said they will abide by the law, but are wary of future litigation. Groups opposed to affirmative action 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 ongoing court cases against Harvard and the University of North Carolina.

“If racial preferences are deemed illegal, it must follow that racial classification boxes should not be allowed on college application forms,” he said.

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

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

But more litigation around the broader issue of diversity, such as scholarships for black students, seems likely. “There is a colossal, well-organized and well-funded attack program,” said Art Coleman, managing partner of Education Counsel, an advisory firm working with universities on Supreme Court cases.

During oral argument, the Supreme Court justices spent considerable time discussing the race box and the candidacy essay. A variation of the phrase “tick the box” was used more than 30 times during the five hours of oral argument before the judges last October.

Patrick Strawbridge, an attorney for Students for Fair Admissions, argued with judges over 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’re up against is a consideration of race and race per se,” Mr Strawbridge told the judges.

“Racing in ticking boxes, as opposed to racing in an experiential statement?” Judge Amy Coney Barrett, one of the Conservative majority members believed to be sympathetic to the plaintiffs, clarified.

Mr Strawbridge said it would be harder to argue against a thoughtful essay that invoked the student’s race in the context of a very personal story.

An essay on overcoming racial discrimination could be allowed, as it “clearly indicates that the candidate has courage, that he has overcome some difficulties”, Mr Strawbridge told the judges. “It tells you something about the candidate’s character and background 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 this point.

“We certainly believe student applicants should have a First Amendment right to be able to speak about their backgrounds if they choose to do so,” Dr. Crawford said.

If discussion of a student’s race was banned altogether, he said, a white candidate at an Ivy League school might be able to write about being the child of a student. a former student, while a black student might not be able to “talk about his or her background, whose grandparents weren’t admitted to schools like the Ivy League, and how that has had an impact on their choices.

The common app will continue to collect racial information for its own purposes, such as reviewing patterns of claims among different groups, regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision, Ms. Rickard said. Since the nonprofit does not admit students, it is unlikely to be the target of litigation.

Colleges will be able to remove racial information from printable and digital application forms. The Common App already allows colleges to hide test score information if they don’t consider test scores in admissions. Colleges were also able to hide students’ social security numbers, dates of birth, gender, and criminal history.

Mr Coleman said he hoped the court’s emphasis in oral argument on ticking the box meant he would only rule against the most simplistic and stereotypical use of race in admissions.

Otherwise, he said, trying to hide a candidate’s race could become a senseless exercise. For example, when interviewing a candidate, “Are you supposed to go behind a curtain?”


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