This week, after a hiatus of about two years, the College of Charleston began to once again practice race-conscious admissions policies.
The Charleston Post and Courier reported on Sunday that the college had “quietly” stopping using its race-conscious admissions practices in 2016. The change was so far below the radar that it hadn’t been voted on by the Board of Trustees, and advocates for underrepresented students weren’t aware of the changes, according to the newspaper. Just days later, the newspaper reported that the use of race-conscious admissions at the college was back on.
It’s unclear why the changes happened or where the directives came from on campus. And the move has many wondering about the motivation for the change.
The institution insists that no changes have been made to its admissions policies. In a statement sent to the campus, Stephen C. Osborne, interim president, wrote, “Despite reports to the contrary, the College has not made any changes to its official admissions policies regarding race.”
But in the next paragraph, Osborne wrote that prior to 2016, the admissions staff had practiced “additional review of students of color who were not initially recommended for admission to the College.” That practice was discontinued in 2016, when the college determined it had achieved positive results in recruiting students of color, the statement reads. At that time, the newspaper reported, about 18.5 percent of the college’s 10,000 or so students were students of color.
The College of Charleston declined to comment.
The proper role of race in admissions is one of higher education’s most fraught questions — something institutions, lawmakers, and students have sparred over for decades. Recent lawsuits charging the University of Texas at Austin and Harvard University with discriminatory admissions practices have brought renewed attention, and new complications, to the topic.
Most institutions believe that bringing diversity into the admissions process in some form has proved to benefit universities, said Jerry Lucido, executive director of the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice, and associate dean of strategic enrollment services at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education.
Study after study has demonstrated that “students of all races believe that once they are in class and interact with individuals of other races, they believe that learning has been enriched, their understanding has been improved, that greater diversity brings broader and more effective solutions to issues,” Lucido said. “This is exactly what we want to happen in the academy.”
The devil is in the details, though. Institutions can increase diversity in a number of ways — by race-conscious or race-neutral methods, Lucido said. Typically, race-conscious admissions factor race into an admissions decision along with several other attributes of a student, including geographic region, academic performance, involvement in sports, musical talent, and other qualities.
“It might add to the perspective of what a student might bring to the university or college, based upon their cultural background experience,” Lucido said. “As well as how they may benefit from the school.”
The lawsuit against Harvard, which charges the university with discriminating against Asian-American candidates, focuses on the use of race as a “tip” — a factor that can add additional weight to a prospective student’s case.
The College of Charleston’s described practice of giving an “additional review” to students of color was something different. And it was flawed from the beginning, Lucido said, because the college isolated race, rather than use it as a weighting factor. “That is not a normal practice,” he said, because based on Supreme Court rulings, race can be considered only as one factor among many others. “It would be unusual to review groups of students by race.”
On the other hand, race-neutral admissions policies attempt to increase diversity in other ways. One method, which the College of Charleston has used since 2015, is the “Top 10 Percent” program. The program guarantees admission to the top 10 percent of graduates from certain public high schools. Lucido said that the Top 10 Percent program has proved less effective than race-conscious admissions, notably at places like the University of Texas at Austin. But some institutions that do not use race-conscious admissions, like Texas A&M University, have argued that those programs, along with the recruitment of underrepresented students, are sufficient to create diverse student bodies.
The Post and Courier reported that at the College of Charleston, the Top 10 Percent program has brought in 138 white students and 80 students of color since 2015.
Charleston’s statement raises another fraught question: How does a college decide when it has achieved diversity? Answers can be especially tough to come by at an institution that is familiar with tensions over race.
When Glenn F. McConnell was hired as the president of the College of Charleston in 2014, Jon Hale remembers seeing Confederate flags everywhere on campus. In the same year, some students appeared in racially insensitive photos that went viral on social media.
Hale, an associate professor of education, uses his courses to discuss the history of race and how institutional discrimination affects education today. One of those courses, “The History of Charleston and the Black Freedom Struggle,” teaches that the city, once in a colony where slaves were bought and traded, is grounded in “racial exclusion and oppression.”
The College of Charleston has a problem with racial inclusion, Hale said. He said there are a lot of “good faith” efforts and well-meaning people, like a bridge program and an office of multicultural student affairs. But the administration consistently fails to take a strong stance against racism on campus, he said.
“Students of color have been subjected to racism on a frequent basis at the College of Charleston.”
Now, one of those “good faith” efforts has come under fire.
Whether or not any changes were made to the admissions process, Hale said the report by The Post and Courier is a serious setback for the college, which may forever be branded as a “racist institution.”
For faculty members and the few administrators who are committed to facilitating racial diversity on campus, Hale said, “It’ll make our jobs much more difficult because, yet again, the College of Charleston is seen in the national eye as a racist institution.”
But, Hale added, there are also “brilliant” faculty members and “some administrators” dedicated to improving the atmosphere. “We have the solutions here, we have the right people here,” Hale said. “We have a very sharp, engaged, dynamic black community that we have yet to take advantage of to help Charleston, to help us work toward the solution.