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NEETU ARNOLD: Are Universities Using Application Essays To Racially Discriminate?

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Neetu Arnold Contributor
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Universities are thinking one step ahead as they prepare for a Supreme Court decision that could end race-based enrollment practices.

Ideas include adding essay questions on a student’s identity and requiring students to submit diversity statements. These ideas are nothing new. The College Board has made recommendations along these lines for years. The aim is clear: to continue race-based admissions without triggering scrutiny by the courts. (RELATED: MICHAEL MACHERA: Will SCOTUS Scuttle Affirmative Action?)

The vague language college administrators use surrounding race and affirmative action often make it difficult to obtain solid proof of their intentions. University administrators openly admit to using controversial “race-conscious” admissions practices to increase student diversity.

But are administrators actually trying to obtain and use an applicant’s demographic information through their essays?

From what I’ve seen, the answer to this question is an unequivocal “yes.” I recently obtained a trove of emails through an open records request from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC) that provides substantial evidence that UNC administrators abuse subjective criteria, like essays, to continue race-based discrimination right under the public’s nose.

If it’s happening at UNC, it’s probably happening elsewhere.

UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media hosts the annual Chuck Stone Program for Diversity in Education & Media, which offers 12 high schoolers the opportunity to receive hands-on journalism experience. Program alumni who end up at the journalism school receive special services such as mentors and career preparation support.

Applicants must submit recommendation letters, a high school transcript and a short essay on how a student’s background contributes to the community’s diversity. The school claims that the program is “open to all students.”

But school officials actively consider race behind closed doors. In a 2022 email obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request, a graduate student managing the applications for the UNC program asked her supervisor how she could “determine race and gender” of applicants who did not indicate such identities.

Program director Livis Freeman responded that he could “usually tell from their essays” and that he would “go back through and add the ones that I find through the essays!”

Obviously, UNC officials are using essays to determine a student’s race, but some may wonder if this information could be collected for statistical purposes. It is important to note that these emails occurred before, not after, the admissions decisions were made for the program.

This means that this information was certainly used in the decision-making process.

University profiles of the program’s participants further bolster the evidence that school officials intentionally conduct racial balancing for this program. The school consistently accepted one white student for every two non-white students between 2016 and 2020.

Post-2020, the year that ignited a wave of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives at universities and businesses, the ratio of white to non-white students dropped to 1:5. In the context of the emails, the most likely explanation for this artificially stable demographic distribution is race-conscious admissions on the part of journalism school officials.

Outreach initiatives like UNC’s media diversity program are part of a broader trend to expand the number of minorities universities can choose from during the admissions process to meet diversity goals. UNC increased the overall percentage of minority students in its journalism class from 22% to 32% in less than a decade.

It’s no wonder the school considers its media diversity program as a “key recruitment strategy to attract underrepresented minorities.” (RELATED: HANS VON SPAKOVSKY: The Supreme Court’s Ruling On Race-Based Redistricting Is A Real Head-Scratcher)

Even if the Supreme Court bans affirmative action, it might not affect recruitment practices like those at UNC. The College Board argues in its playbook that targeted efforts to recruit minority students can be legal because they are considered “inclusive” rather than “exclusive.”

In other words, recruitment efforts simply expand the applicant pool rather than making admissions decisions. These arguments are still preliminary and not thoroughly tested in the courts, but we can be confident that the higher education establishment will push any loophole they can find to its limit.

Regardless of the perceived legality of their actions, any type of racial discrimination is wrong.

State legislators can pass laws which outright ban race-conscious outreach and recruitment programs at state universities. Universities committed to fairness in higher education should denounce practices such as those stated above. In addition, university officials should ensure that hiring and promotional criteria for faculty exclude participation in such programs.

As universities increasingly introduce subjective evaluation criteria to deal with the blowback against affirmative action, we should remember that these metrics invite every kind of prejudice imaginable. Nobody should have to wonder if they were excluded from an opportunity because of their skin color.

Neetu Arnold is a Research Fellow at the National Association of Scholars and a Young Voices contributor. Follow her on Twitter @neetu_arnold

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller News Foundation.

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