Minnesota colleges consider future diversity following affirmative action's overturn

Macalester College humanities building
Macalester College President Suzanne Rivera says she sees any measures hampering efforts to increase diversity in higher education as counterproductive.
Courtesy of Macalester College

After the U.S. Supreme Court's overturning of race-conscious college admissions policies, Minnesota higher education institutions say they are just beginning to consider how they may ensure student diversity.

Office of Higher Education (OHE) commissioner Dennis Olson said the ruling was “disappointing,” but a decision many universities across the state were anticipating.

“It's important for prospective students and families and communities to understand that this was for some, one of the many criteria that were examined for admissions decisions,” Olson said. “There's a lot of opportunity out there, and Minnesota is certainly not walking away from their commitment whatsoever.”

According to data collected by the OHE, from 2010 to 2021, enrollment of students of color at Minnesota post-secondary institutions increased from 19 percent to 30 percent. However, white students are still 34 percent more likely to attend than students of color statewide.

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Olson said Minnesota has some of the widest attainment gaps in the country. But he believes the OHE's efforts to build equity in the state's financial aid systems will continue to expand diversity in the state despite changes in admissions processes themselves.

Olson also touted the recent passing of the American Indian Scholars Program, which will provide a tuition waiver for Indigenous students attending public colleges and universities, and the North Star Promise Scholarship Program, which will offer students from families making under $80,000 per year the opportunity for free tuition.

The Supreme Court ruling prohibits schools from considering race as a factor in deciding who is admitted. However, it does not prevent them from considering applicants who discuss how race affects their lives, “so long as that discussion is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability that the particular applicant can contribute to the university.”

University of Minnesota law professor Jill Hasday predicts universities will accommodate for the change by replacing boxes applicants check indicating their race with essay questions that lean into that discussion.

Macalester College, a selective private college in St. Paul, plans to do just that.

“It looks to me as though we can consider, for example, what challenges they've overcome and what skills they've built and what lessons they've learned in their life,” president Suzanne Rivera said. “For some students, what's going to be really important to them is overcoming some sort of challenge academically or on a team that they played on, but for other students it's going to be ‘here’s how my identity as the child of immigrants affected my life,’ or ‘here’s how my identity as a member of a racial or ethnic minority group affected my life.’”

Rivera said she sees any measures hampering efforts to increase diversity in higher education as counterproductive. However, she does not believe the ruling will drastically impact Macalester's admissions process because they engage in a holistic review of applicants.

She added working to assemble a diverse student body remains a “top priority.”

According to Hasday, legal battles will likely commence following Thursday’s decision to determine how far schools can go in considering the discussion of race affecting an applicant’s life.

“The central question is what counts as a race-neutral criteria, which might not be as obvious as you'd think,” Hasday said. “For instance, suppose a school adopts a certain admissions criteria because it thinks that that criteria that's neutral on its face will actually promote racial diversity. Should that be understood as racial neutral or as race based? That's just something that's going to be fought out.”

Because of this, Hasday stressed that the outcome is not fixed.

“Although this opinion is written as if it's the last word on affirmative action and its death now, that may not be the case,” she said.