Forced to abandon affirmative action, University of Michigan revises its diversity strategy

The school instead focuses on increasing yield

As the Supreme Court considers a case that could end affirmative action, the University of Michigan—which has long been at the center of the debate over race-based admissions—is finding alternative ways to increase diversity, Anemona Hartocollis reports for the New York Times.

In December, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas—a case that could lead to a ban on the use of affirmative action in college and university admissions. While some advocates worry an end to affirmative action would significantly reduce diversity on America's college campuses, there is some evidence that schools can find other ways to increase minority enrollment, according to Hartocollis.

The University of Michigan was involved in two landmark Supreme Court cases in 2003 that set the contours of the current legal debate over affirmative action. In Grutter v. Bollinger the court ruled that schools could consider race to achieve a "critical mass" of minority students, but in Gratz v. Bollinger, the court said affirmative action policies could not be so broad as to violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

A university adapts

Those rulings may be reversed in Fisher, but for the University of Michigan, the case's outcome is unlikely to change things much given the 2006 decision by Michigan voters to ban affirmative action in the state's public colleges and universities.

Initially, "minority enrollment plunged," Hartocollis writes, as the school looked for new ways to increase diversity that don't rely on race. In a brief submitted in Fisher, the University of Michigan offered a "cautionary tale" about the difficulty of choosing a diverse class without being able to consider race," noting that using income as a proxy for race hadn't worked because of the state's demographics.

But while minority enrollment is still down 12% since 2006, the number of minority students in 2015's freshman class rose by almost 20% over 2014, "to the highest percentage since 2005."

What happens when colleges drop affirmative action?

The jump is thanks in large part to the efforts of Kedra Ishop, who became the school's enrollment manager about a year ago and has focused on increasing yield, the number of students offered admission who enroll, among minority applicants. "It's a courtship," she explains. The strategy has several elements, such as:

  • Recruiting faculty, deans, students, and others to make personal calls to admitted students;
  • Increasing student aid and renaming it "tuition" scholarships to appeal to student and families; and
  • Investing in resources that appeal to minority students, like a new $10 million multicultural center.

Freshmen yield was 45% in 2015, up from 41% the previous year. Michigan also cut the size of its freshman class by 434 students and did not admit any students from the waiting list; waiting list admissions tend to favor "higher-income—often white and Asian—students, who can afford to put down a deposit to reserve admission at another college while they wait," Hartocollis writes.

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Year over year, the number black and Hispanic freshmen rose 23.5%—with black students making up 5.11% of the 2015 freshman class, compared to 3.84% in 2014. It's a modest change, but one that students notice.

Robby Greenfield, a senior engineering student and the former treasurer of the Black Student Union, says of the incoming class, "there's black people everywhere." But he struck a more serious tone when talking about the university's long-term diversity goals. "There needs to be enough to culturally shift the dialogue on campus," he says (Hartocollis, New York Times, 1/4).

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