“Transforming College Admissions: Implications for the US Workforce”

On 29 June, a US Supreme Court ruling struck down affirmative action: the practice of favouring individuals in disadvantaged groups, largely aimed at eliminating discrimination among marginalised applicants. The majority of Justices voted against the policy, instituted in the 1960s, ruling American universities considering race in the admissions process is unconstitutional.

Another change, albeit much smaller, is the emerging removal of “legacy” admissions. This policy provides favour to applicants related to university alumni, or who are related to a donor.

Many groups have criticised this admissions approach, arguing it gives disproportionate advantage to well-connected white students. In a complaint submitted with the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, records showed 70% of legacy applicants at Harvard University are white, and they are six-times more likely than other applicants to be admitted. Following the affirmative action ruling, legacy admissions has become increasingly contentious: on 25 July, the US Education Department opened a civil-rights investigation into the Ivy League school’s legacy policy.

Some universities are voluntarily choosing to drop this policy from the selection process: on 19 July, in one of the most high-profile moves, Connecticut-based liberal-arts college Wesleyan University took the decision to end legacy admissions.

The striking down of affirmative action in higher education and the renewed focus on legacy admissions has the potential to shake up the demographics of students who are admitted – effects that could change the composition of the US workforce.

However, say experts, these moves are not equal in how they’ll touch the diversity of student bodies and graduates, and the subsequent possible downstream effects on the workforce they may create.

Prestigious jobs, STEM, academia and beyond

The affirmative action ruling stands to have the greater impact of the two policy changes, agree both Katharine Meyer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education, a US-based think tank, and Miguel M Unzueta, a professor of management and organisations at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management.

Unzueta says black and Latino people stand to feel the most significant impacts in their working lives from the changes to this policy.

Past data shows these groups generally see the biggest declines in their admissions rates to top schools when affirmative action policies are removed. Unzueta points to research from public universities that have banned these policies in the past. For instance, California removed affirmative action in 1996 – 10 years later, class composition data at UCLA showed a precipitous drop in the enrolment of black and Latino students.

This diversity decline affects the pipeline to the most “prestigious” jobs and salaries, he says.

Companies in highly competitive, high-paying fields – such as consulting and finance – generally recruit from elite universities, often Ivy League schools. He believes as black and Latino students who would have benefited from affirmative action enrol at less competitive schools, they stand to be left out of narrow corporate recruiting pools. Along with altering their career trajectories, it can also affect their earning potential long-term.

Meyer believes the most significant effects on workforce diversity will be felt in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. “Research in multiple settings has shown that when states have banned affirmative action, the number of underrepresented minority students completing STEM degrees drops at highly selective colleges, with no offsetting increase at other colleges,” says Meyer.

This is an issue, says Unzueta, because pay in these fields is particularly high, and many new jobs are emerging due to rapid technological advancement – think data analytics or AI, for example. 

Unzueta adds that top universities also tend to produce more graduate students, including doctoral students and MBAs. “If the argument is that to get to the C-suite, you have to come out of a top MBA program”, less diverse graduate students could mean less diversity in leadership, he says.

As black and Latino students who would have benefited from affirmative action enrol at less competitive schools, they stand to be left out of narrow corporate recruiting pools

And beyond the potential changing composition of graduates entering the workforce, Meyer adds the affirmative action decision may have an “indirect chilling effect”, in which individual companies dial back recruiting and corporate diversity initiatives they think could potenitally violate the Supreme Court ruling – which can further erode diversity among student bodies, and the graduates who enter the workforce.

Good intentions unrealised?

The end of legacy admissions – which Meyer anticipates will spread, citing moves to scale back the policy at other elite institutions like Johns Hopkins University throughout the past several years, plus increasing public pressure – may not have as wide-reaching an effect on the workforce of the near future.

First, she says, there’s no certainty ending legacy admissions “will meaningfully improve the racial diversity of a college’s class, let alone that it would translate into the workforce”. She adds that omitting the practice does not actively support substantial admissions to a more racially diverse group of students.

The change may affect class diversity more than race, believes Unzueta. As data released 24 July shows the majority of students who attend Ivy League or “Ivy-Plus” universities are overwhelmingly upper class, he says it’s possible top institutions may admit more middle-class students, who could potentially end up in the leadership positions these wealthier students currently hold. But, he cautions, these changes – if they happen at all – will be a comparative drop in the ocean, unable to counter the deluge of effects the end of affirmative action could potentially create.

Adia Harvey Wingfield, a sociologist, author and professor at Washington University in St Louis, is also sceptical dismantling legacy admissions will help diversify the workforce in any meaningful way – and believes colleges may not widely adopt the policies, anyway.

‘It’s going to get even harder’

For the workforce to be more diverse overall, says Wingfield, “companies would need to commit to policies that have documented success rates in increasing diversity in hiring”, such as prioritising recruiting from institutions such as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI).

Unzueta agrees. Now that past data shows the number of minority students will likely fall at top universities, he says it’s incumbent on companies to broaden their recruiting pipelines beyond the usual targets. “If those [elite] schools are going to become less diverse … companies need to go to, for lack of a better word, ‘lower-status institutions’ that are going to have very good people there,” he says. Companies can’t “rely on the heuristic that high status means high quality”. 

Efforts that focus on diverse hiring – regardless of the university pipeline – can work, stresses Meyer. She cites 2020 Brookings research on an effort in west Michigan to implement a more structured hiring process, which doubled the racial and ethnic diversity in the workforce, which was also 23% less likely to turn over in the first year. 

And although some companies may be nervous instituting diversity-centric policies in fear they are violating new laws, Wingfield is also hopeful some of the sectors that could be touched most by these changing policies – such as tech and academia – may double down on their commitments to attract a racially diverse workforce, regardless.

While Wingfield anticipates a commitment to diversity from these sectors, she says we may also see “a real hit in companies developing policies that are explicitly designed to achieve these ends, and in companies establishing workplace norms that allow them to retain talented workers of colour once they are hired”.

Unzueta believes “there are ways to offset the losses” in both the composition of student bodies and the workforce, including universities themselves getting creative with recruiting. Yet he adds it’s unlikely diversity numbers will return to where they are now. 

“Quite frankly, the numbers now are not all that impressive. There are ways to try to claw back some of those numbers and improve representation,” says Unzueta. It’s not easy now, he adds, but “it’s going to be even harder”.

source : BBC

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