The reason a liberal like me is intrigued by Trumps actions on affirmative action is that I think it could have the effect of driving universities to really pursuing socioeconomic diversity as a way of indirectly creating racial diversity, said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who has pushed for class-based admissions to replace race-based admissions.
Public universities in California and Washington, forbidden by state law from considering race in individual admissions decisions, have attempted to use socioeconomic factors as a substitute, hoping to draw from the overlap of minority and low-income students. Others, like the University of Texas, accept a set percentage of the top students at every state high school. Neither method has fully succeeded in composing student bodies that match the racial makeup of their states.
Other colleges with more freedom to curate a student body continue to weigh race as one factor in admissions, which can lead to more diversity. But their decision-making can be so subjective that, in the minds of high school seniors staring down application season, it can border on the occult.
It is this opacity that has left few happy: not Asian-American students who feel that they are being held to a higher standard, and whose complaint against Harvard has become a focus of the Justice Departments efforts; not white students who feel similarly penalized; and not those who remain the theoretical face of affirmative action, African-American and Latino applicants who say the assumption that their success depended on their race can shadow them far beyond commencement.
When I told people I was going to Princeton, it was not uncommon for me to hear: Oh, youre going to Princeton because you are black, said Jonathan Haynes, a sophomore from Midland, Mich., where just 2 percent of the population is black. He is among a group of students pushing Princeton, where 9 percent of students are black, to admit more from low-income backgrounds.
For Mike Coiro, who will enter Columbia University in the fall, the role race might or might not play in college admissions had inserted itself into conversation after conversation as he and others at his New Jersey boarding school filled out their applications.
Its not something I actively worried about, but it was definitely in the back of my mind, he said. I wondered whether being a straight white male would have any effect on Columbia.
But Mr. Coiro said he supported affirmative action, despite being, in his words, kind of right-leaning. That is partly because his best friend, a Hispanic student who will be the first person in his family to attend college, will also be a freshman at Columbia in the fall.
Were both here, Mr. Coiro said. I dont feel disadvantaged at all.
In states that have rejected affirmative action policies at universities, which include Michigan, Washington and Florida, the new approaches to assembling a diverse student body have tended to give an edge to applicants who have overcome disadvantages like poor neighborhoods, troubled schools and language barriers.
But though these methods may have somewhat increased the number of low-income students of all backgrounds, racial diversity remains elusive.
Socioeconomic considerations may be desirable in and of themselves, said Mark Yudof, a former president of the University of California and former chancellor of the University of Texas. But I dont think they can get the job done.
At the University of California system, which was forced to drop affirmative action programs after voters approved Proposition 209 in 1996, officials have had to rely on what they call race-neutral solutions to strive for a student body that more closely mirrors the states population.
Students in the top 9 percent of their high school class are guaranteed admission to at least one U.C. campus.
Starting in 2011, most of the system adopted what university officials call a holistic review, under which admissions officers considered the entirety of the applicants circumstances, reading the application beginning to end before making a judgment, said Han Mi Yoon-Wu, the undergraduate admissions director for the system. Nothing is particularly weighted more than anything else.
Race is not one of the criteria, but to opponents of race-conscious admissions, such methods sound suspiciously like a euphemism for affirmative action. Admissions officers are using details about a students background as a proxy for race, said Ward Connerly, an African-American businessman who is a longtime and outspoken critic of affirmative action.
University officials have reached into California high schools, working with teachers, counselors and parents to identify a pool of promising low-income students and help them apply.
Although Latinos made up about 52 percent of students graduating from high school in California in 2016, only about one-third of the freshmen who enrolled in one of the 10 U.C. campuses that fall were Latino, a disparity that Ms. Yoon-Wu called troubling.
The number of black and Latino students enrolling at Los Angeles and Berkeley, the flagship campuses, have declined even more steeply. Blacks made up about 3 percent of all undergraduates at Berkeley last year, with Asians at 39 percent and whites at 26 percent.
There is still a lot of work to be done, Ms. Yoon-Wu said.
In 1999 Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, pre-empting an attempt by Mr. Connerly to pass a version of Proposition 209 in his state, banned racial preferences in admissions but attempted to compensate by guaranteeing admission to a state college to students who graduated in the top 20 percent of their high school classes.
Mr. Bush later boasted that after Florida campuses set aside an affirmative action system he called discriminatory, they raised the number of black and Hispanic students attending state colleges. But education experts questioned his numbers, noting that the population of Hispanic students rose mainly because of a change in how students were told to report their ethnicity on their applications, and that the number of students in the system had risen over all.
State statistics also show that the number of black students attending Floridas state schools has declined slightly since the rule went into effect. At the states flagship university, the University of Florida, 6 percent of undergraduates who enrolled in fall 2015 were black, down from 12 percent in 2000, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. About 17 percent of Floridas population is black.
A University of Florida spokeswoman said a number of factors had contributed to the change, including the economy, the lack of need-based financial aid and a higher number of applications, which made the school more selective. Changes in the way students report their race may mean that many black students are being counted in other categories, such as Hispanic, she added.
The University of Florida strives for a diverse campus community, said the spokeswoman, Margot Winick. We have worked diligently to remove barriers through recruiting programs.
For example, she said, the university arranges campus visits and conducts outreach at urban, rural and low-income high schools.
At the University of Florida in Gainesville, the dwindling number of black students is noticeable, said Dwayne Fletcher, the head of the Black Student Union.
Its a palpable feeling when it comes to wanting to find someone you can identify with, and having to look few and far between, said Mr. Fletcher, 21, an agriculture education and communication major who will be a senior this fall.
Although the university would have been prohibited from considering his race when offering him admission, Mr. Fletcher may have benefited from the schools new focus on other forms of diversity. He was a member of the schools AIM program, which chooses candidates based on criteria including test scores, being the first in their family to attend college or the geographical region they come from.
I was told that it was not for the AIM program, I would not be at the University of Florida, said Mr. Fletcher, whose parents immigrated from Jamaica. Im not saying, Hey, were going to select all these people of color at random to fill a quota to make sure were exemplifying diversity. However, equity is something that needs to be considered.
For many opponents of affirmative action, the ideal admissions system strips out all factors but achievement.
All that matters, in the type of society that I envision, is that you are at the top and you are there because you have achieved in accordance with the rules that weve laid out, said Mr. Connerly. Not on the basis of your skin color, not on the basis of where your daddy was born.
The California Institute of Technology, an elite destination for science, engineering and math study just outside Los Angeles, hews strikingly close to Mr. Connerlys vision.
We are as close to a meritocracy as is possible, said a spokeswoman for the university, Kathy A. Svitil.
Underrepresented minorities, including African-Americans, Hispanics, American Indians and Alaska natives, make up 16 percent of the undergraduate population.
There was a tiny number of African-American students in last years freshman class, 4 out of 235. The largest ethnic group was Asians, with 77 students, followed by whites, with 70.
Fadl Saadi, a former graduate student at the university, says there has been tension in the past over whether to admit more underrepresented minorities.
In 2012, Mr. Saadi posted an article that began, Caltech has a serious diversity problem.
The response on campus was less than warm, he said.
I received a lot of pushback from people who felt that this kind of perfectly meritocratic system was the ideal, Mr. Saadi said. There was this preconceived idea that outreach into ethnicities and underrepresented minorities and genders would be somehow linked to a decrease in quality.
But on a campus that has historically had a wide gender imbalance, skewed toward men, the college seems to be striving for gender parity, if not racial diversity: About three times as many men as women applied last year, but women were three times as likely to get in as men.
Among the most diverse and prestigious colleges in the country is Columbia University. Among domestic undergraduates, the proportion of Hispanics and African-Americans has increased significantly over the past two decades, to 28 percent in the class of 2021, according to Columbia.
To do this, you have to make it a purpose, you cant just decide that this would be nice to have and then just let it happen, said Lee C. Bollinger, Columbias president, who has long been a proponent of considering race and ethnicity in admissions, most famously as the named defendant in a pair of lawsuits challenging affirmative action at the University of Michigan, which he previously led.
Black and Latino applicants are often trying to surmount not only poverty, but also inferior public schooling. Its the responsibility of a great institution to try to help to address those injustices, he added. Secondly, it just makes complete sense to prepare your students for a world that is profoundly diverse.
Tristan Douville, who is a Native American from Alaska, was participating last week in a summer program for incoming freshmen who would be the first in their families to attend college. He said participants have had frank conversations about the stigma they may face when they join the rest of the student body.
But, he said, the programs directors reinforce that we got in because we deserved to be at Columbia just as much as other people did.
Mr. Bollinger said the popular understanding of affirmative action that admissions officers save some spots for minorities, regardless of their qualifications did not match reality. Instead, he said, the university selects a pool of qualified people whom they believe can thrive on campus, looking at an array of factors including grades, test scores, essays, recommendations, legacy status, athletic ability, musical talent and geographic diversity.
He denied that Columbia discriminated against white or Asian applicants.
Its impossible to know without going through the entire admissions process why it is you were not accepted, he said.
Still, there is little transparency about how much of a role race plays in the admissions offices of highly selective colleges. When part of the process does become public, as it did after the Department of Education investigated a complaint by Asian-American applicants against Princeton, it can show admissions officers highlighting race in frank terms.
Very few African Americans with verbal scores like this, one Princeton admissions officer wrote of a black student, according to documents tied to the investigation that were first reported by BuzzFeed.
Other officers wrote that Asian-American applicants had very familiar profiles or were difficult to pluck out.
Members of other minorities, on the other hand, appeared to catch the officers interest if they played up their backgrounds: A native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander received the comment, Were there a touch more cultural flavor Id be more enthusiastic.
But the Education Department, which opened the investigation in 2008, ultimately found that while the officers comments were sometimes associated with stereotypes, Princeton had not discriminated based on race or selected applicants based only on their race.
Asked for comment, Daniel Day, a Princeton spokesman, reiterated the investigations findings, adding that they were as true today as they were then.
Daniel Alvarez, the boarding-school friend of Mr. Coiro who is joining him at Columbia, did not dispute Mr. Coiros belief that he had benefited from the schools affirmative action policies.
But while his classmates had speculated about some black and Latino students who had been admitted to elite schools, Mr. Alvarez said he had not been one of those targets. He was well-known in his high school for being academically successful and accomplished, he said.
People can think what they will, but in the end, Im never going to really be able to know whether race helped him, he said. I feel like the true measure of whether or not it was really part of it will depend on how I do there. If I get there, and Im struggling, and this isnt the sort of school that I belong at, then maybe Ill reconsider.