Holistic admissions more important following end of affirmative action


John Powers ’26 is an intended Public Policy major hailing from Brooklyn, Ny. He is a Resident Assistant in Hardy Hall, a member of the Undergraduate Moot Court competition team and a member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. John is a huge Adele fan. Email him at jdpowers@wm.edu

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

Nestled at the end of one of the most controversial U.S. Supreme Court decisions in recent memory lies an intriguing remark by majority opinion author, Chief Justice John Roberts.

“At the same time, as all parties agree, nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise,” Roberts wrote. “ … Universities may not simply establish through application essays or other means the regime we hold unlawful today …  A benefit to a student who overcame racial discrimination, for example, must be tied to that student’s courage and determination…In other words, the student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual—not on the basis of race.”

Your takeaway from this might be that Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard leaves some wiggle room for affirmative action supporters. However, the remark is also a hint of what the future of the college admissions debate will look like. Litigation now will not be focused on the constitutionality of race-based admissions, but whether new admissions processes are facades for prohibited ones. The new debates will concern not race, but the discussion of one’s race or a personality judgment.

Consider the principal organization behind the lawsuit: Students for Fair Admissions. In the lead-up to the Supreme Court case, the organization released a nine-minute mini-documentary arguing against the admissions policies of Harvard University. 

“We could fill our classes with the very smartest, best performers, but we choose not to,” John Yoo, a former Bush administration attorney and current Berkeley law professor, said in the mini-doc. 

SFFA’s brief before the Supreme Court alleged that Harvard’s evaluation of personality created an “anti-Asian penalty.” It noted that Asians perform very well on standardized testing, grade point average and extracurriculars but scored lower than any other group on personal qualities. 

Indeed, the video took aim at holistic admissions processes, which evaluate a student’s academic performance in addition to other factors like personal experiences and supplemental essays. 

“They’ve invented these new admissions schemes called holistic admissions as a Trojan Horse for discrimination,” journalist Asra Nomani argued in the mini-doc. 

The growing hostility towards holistic admissions in this new political climate calls for a defense of using personal experiences and qualities in admissions decisions. This is especially true as colleges begin to roll out new essay questions giving applicants the opportunity to opine about these characteristics and experiences.  

For one thing, the number of college applications have seen a stark rise. A March report by the Common Application found a 30% increase in total applications in the current cycle compared to the 2019-2020 cycle. In the past 20 years, total applications have been increasing while high school graduating classes have remained relatively fixed. While some of this may be attributed to test-optional admissions encouraging more students to apply, the trend of increasing applications predates this. 

Simply put, a singular focus on metrics does little to help admissions officers distinguish between a growing number of equally qualified applicants. So, it is logical to use at least some aspects of a holistic process to avoid basing admission decisions on statistically insignificant numerical differences. To understand why personal experiences and qualities play a role in this, we turn to the question of what the college community is. 

In her short primer “Is Affirmative Action Fair? The Myth of Equity in College Admissions,” sociologist Natasha Warikoo makes the argument that colleges select students, in part, to fulfill their institutional needs. Her point makes sense. Colleges have to select not only qualified applicants, but also those who, for example, can play on the sports teams, provide sufficient financial support and maintain the university’s future existence. 

In other words, education is not the singular role of a college. If that were true, then maybe only GPAs and test scores should be given consideration. Colleges have other roles too, though, like churning out successful alumni, promoting social mobility or producing researchers. Here, holistic elements may provide additional context to admit those who will meet these goals. 

As an example, let’s say a university already has a strong population of pre-medical students but is weaker in the humanities one year. Is it really a loss to meritocracy when it admits a competitive debater with a 1450 SAT score and 3.95 GPA over a 1500 SAT scorer who was a member of her high school’s pre-med club with a 3.98 GPA? Even if it is a loss to meritocracy, isn’t this decision justified?

After all, there is a college for everybody, and those institutional needs are different for each college. The vast majority of U.S. colleges admit most who apply, per the Pew Research Center. Even SFFA’s very own student spokesperson, Calvin Yang, is a junior at (drumroll please) University of California, Berkeley. Not too shabby. 

Still, those on the other side would charge that personal ratings open up the possibility of bias. The appellants in SFFA would certainly agree, but it is important to note that presenting evidence of unequal ratings between Asian applicants and others does not necessarily mean discrimination. Ironically, the conservatives here arguably conflate correlation with causation in a way that they have criticized liberals for doing in other contexts. 

Personal qualities are important to an admissions decision. Colleges can and should use essays, recommendation letters and/or interviews to see how students would collaborate with others in a team on campus. Furthermore, examining personal qualities helps to find those with leadership potential in a way that hard data points may not. 

Of course, holistic admissions should comprise a diverse set of evaluative factors. As such, axing standardized tests in perpetuity is suspect. As The Flat Hat’s former Editor-in-Chief Ethan Brown argued in a 2021 opinions piece, standardized test scores may be affected by income, but then again, so are extracurricular activities and other factors. Lotteries or capstone projects Warikoo proposes as alternative admissions solutions in the primer mentioned above are also insufficient. All of these ineffective solutions underscore the importance of charting a moderate course of action. 

It is reasonable to conclude that SFFA and similar stakeholders wouldn’t chart that moderate course considering their deep hostility to personal qualities, lambasting them as subjective. I predict future lawsuits alleging that essays allowing applicants to showcase their “courage” or “determination,” as Roberts wrote, are also unconstitutional. Where does it end?  

While it seems plausible at first that colleges should admit the “best performers,” as Yoo says, it is clear that colleges have reason to look for more than that. 

Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard was without doubt, a landmark ruling with sweeping impacts for our country. While it eliminated race-based admissions processes, it kept in tact and even endorsed holistic ones. Holistic admissions will be the new target in this shifted political landscape, even though it makes sense as a matter of logistics and institutional needs. We ought to keep it. 

CORRECTION (09/28/23): Article was updated by Sarah Devendorf, the Standards and Practices Editor, to correct two grammatical errors.


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