Not ditching diversity: Colleges adapt to end of race-based admissions

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 09-06-2023 7:56 PM

NORTHAMPTON — When Suleidy De La Cruz first came to Northampton as a college student, it’s safe to say it was a bit of an adjustment.

Originally from the Dominican Republic, De La Cruz moved to New York City and attended community college in the Bronx before transferring to Smith College in Northampton as an education major. She recalled sitting in one of her first policy classes surrounded by her classmates, many who came from elite backgrounds and prestigious high schools that helped prepare them for the subject matter.

“I was so intimidated, I’m not going to lie,” recalled De La Cruz, who is now a senior. “I remember I reached out to the professor because I was terrified of speaking up. I told him my background and he said, ‘What your background is makes your perspective as valuable as anybody else in this room.’ So you really need to believe that what you’re bringing to the table is as valuable as anybody else here [at college].”

As colleges begin welcoming new students this year ahead of the start of the fall semester, a question hangs over campuses on the future of student diversity and how colleges can ensure their student body includes students like De La Cruz who come from underrepresented backgrounds. At issue is the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling against affirmative action programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina, effectively ending higher educational institution’s ability to include race as an overt factor in admissions.

“So many people, and the government, are telling us we don’t belong here, but we do,” De La Cruz said regarding the court’s ruling. “The people that are in these schools, not just administration-wise but other students, they see the value in that.”

College administrations are changing their admissions processes to be in line with the Supreme Court’s ruling while aiming to ensure that they can attract students from diverse backgrounds to campus.

At Smith, part of the changes includes adding a short-answer question to its applications. It asks prospective students what “personal experiences, background or abilities would you bring to this residential environment to share with your neighbors and what would you hope your neighbors would share with you?”

“Access to education is a fundamental core value to Smith and we firmly believe that our community is stronger when it includes people with a variety of backgrounds and experiences,” said Carolyn McDaniel, a spokesperson for Smith. “This new question offers each applicant an opportunity to share with us their unique voice and perspective, so we can understand how they will contribute to the Smith community.”

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Changes are also being made to the application process at the state’s biggest public university.

Applicants to UMass Amherst receive a new essay prompt asking students to choose a community or group that they belong to and explain how it has impacted them over the course of their life. Edward Blaguszewski, a spokesperson for the university, said the essay would help in assembling a student body with diverse backgrounds.

“While the court stated that even though race/ethnicity itself cannot be considered, the impact it has had on the applicant can be considered,” said Blaguszewski. “We believe the responses by students to this new prompt can certainly broaden the scope of information we have as it relates to the holistic review process that UMass Amherst has been using very effectively in admissions for about the past 10 years.”

Mount Holyoke College is also adding an optional essay question on its common application this year to reflect the high court ruling. Amherst College has yet to change its application process, although the school did away with legacy admissions in 2021 in an attempt to create more opportunity for other applicants.

For students worried about how the court’s ruling might affect their chances of acceptance, De La Cruz advises to look for support through other organizations. De La Cruz herself received assistance from the Kaplan Educational Foundation, a nonprofit in New York City that provides academic and financial assistance to community college students of color in the city to transfer to prominent four-year colleges.

“Having that support really allowed me to understand what I was capable of and dream big,” De La Cruz said. “I feel like as college students, we’re always thinking we have to thrive academically, and yes that’s important, but college is so much more. You also need to think about yourself as a whole person and what will really make you enjoy your college experience.”

Nolvia Delgado, the executive director of Kaplan Educational Foundation and herself a Smith alumna, said that the Supreme Court’s ruling had made it more important for nonprofits to provide support to underrepresented students to help them further their education. She said the foundation had the largest number of students apply to its program last year since it was founded in 2006.

“It’s just made our work more urgent, now more than ever before,” she said. “It’s important for students to know that they’re welcomed at these institutions and that there is a place for them there.”

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