As the supreme court hears case on affirmative action, 5Cs reflect on a practice in limbo

A person holds up a sign at a protest that reads "Our unity is our strength, Diversity is our power."
Affirmative action may affect 5C admissions policy depending on the Supreme Court rule. (Katherine Tan • The Student Life)

This Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court convened to begin hearing arguments regarding two monumental precedents concerning the status of affirmative action in college admissions. 

With the lawsuits, one against the University of North Carolina and the other against Harvard University, the court will decide whether to uphold the practice of affirmative action or overturn diversity-conscious admissions altogether.

The precedent at stake was set by Gratz v Bollinger (2003), a case which the late Pomona College alumni and former trustee John Payton PO ‘23 famously defended as a lawyer for WilmerHare.

While decisions for both cases likely will not be released until June, the hearings brought forth a topic central to the values of the Claremont Colleges: diversity of race, gender, ethnicity, (dis)ability and age, which some 5C presidents have begun to address in community statements.

Although affirmative action has been banned for California’s public universities since 1996, private institutions, such as the 5Cs, are still able to use affirmative action when selecting their students. 

As a consortium, the 5Cs use holistic admissions when considering the makeup of incoming classes. If the Supreme Court rules against affirmative action, though, the schools could be legally required to change these admissions practices. 

TSL reached out to 5C administration and faculty to see what the court’s ruling would mean for the future of 5C admissions.

In a statement for TSL, Victoria Romero, Scripps College vice president for enrollment, emphasized the college’s use of holistic review in the admissions process. She said Scripps intends to continue utilizing this practice unless the Court’s declarations on affirmative action declares it illegal.

“The College will abide by the Court’s ruling while maintaining a commitment to our mission and institutional priorities,”  Romero told TSL via email. “We may have an additional response after we hear the Court’s decision.”

In a statement made to the Pitzer College community on Tuesday, Interim President Jill Klein emphasized the centrality of holistic admissions to the college’s mission.

“We work to admit a class that reflects our core values, seeking a diverse body of students who are passionate about deepening and broadening their academic experience and for whom our special focus on social and racial justice education resonates,” Klein said via email. 

Klein echoed Scripps’ stance that the college will prioritize its longstanding goals while abiding by the Supreme Court’s decision.

“What the Court decides in the Harvard and UNC cases will not change our mission,” Klein said. “Pitzer College will adhere to the law while staying laser-focused on our mission and the core values that make us Pitzer.”

Adam Sapp, interim vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid at Pomona, told TSL via email that diversity has been and will remain central to Pomona’s admissions process. 

We use a holistic review process that meets the strict scrutiny determined in previous court rulings,” Sapp told TSL over email. “Our process offers candidates for admission many opportunities to demonstrate their ability to contribute to Pomona, both in the classroom and out, and we have an admissions decision-making process that considers an applicant’s diverse background among the many factors used in evaluating students in their local context.” 

Regarding the future of Pomona’s admissions, Sapp said the college will continue employing its broad outreach and recruitment strategy, in addition to keeping Pomona affordable for admitted students. 

“We know that enrolling a diverse class has direct educational benefits to the social and intellectual life at Pomona,” Sapp told TSL. 

Pomona President G. Gabrielle Starr recently published an op-ed in the Boston Globe on this topic, where she reiterated the importance of diversity to Pomona’s admissions process. 

“Not only do we need to capture talent that might otherwise be lost through early educational inequity, but we need to provide access to an environment in which our young people can experience the diversity of human culture and learn to understand each other,” Starr wrote. 

In a weekly update emailed to Pomona’s community, President Starr reaffirmed her position, outlining a few long-term, concrete steps that Pomona has taken in order to increase and uphold diversity on campus — including the PAYS program for college admissions and the Sustained Dialogue Initiative.

“Now we are working to further widen the pipeline to college, by admitting more community college students as transfers, among other steps,” Starr said in a Wednesday email. “In recent times, the proportion of lower-income students has grown at Pomona, and we need to continue on that path while also reaching out and enrolling more students from the middle class, as we strive for a diverse student population that fosters greater connection and truly represents the diversity of the United States.”

According to George Thomas, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, the removal of race as a factor for college admissions would almost certainly impact 5C admissions. 

“If the court says race can’t be a factor in consideration, the 5Cs will have to figure out how they will respond to that,” Thomas said. “Right now, I want to say that all five treat it as something that they consider as part of the overall application and as part of constructing an overall class.” 

Thomas added that a decision against affirmative action could lead to the 5Cs emphasizing other factors during admissions, such as socioeconomic class. 

“There’s no question that studies have shown if you do that, it really does inevitably include a disproportionate number of racial minorities,” Thomas said. “That might be the way you get a diverse class.”

Pomona politics professor Sean Diament predicts that large public universities would be most affected. 

Since learning about the admissions team at Pomona, Diament thinks that the connections the school has with individual communities will allow them to maintain a level of diversity in the student body.

“If you’re an understaffed admissions department at a large school, you don’t have the ability to reach into every community and build up relationships. You’ll just look at an applicant and look at some boxes,” Diament said. “You don’t really have the ability to do the other work to figure out other sides of their profile, and they do that [at Pomona]. They build up relationships with communities in a uniquely successful manner.”

Unlike Thomas, who said socioeconomic class in admissions decisions is a strong way to preserve diversity, Diament said that geographic diversity might be a better proxy to maintain identity and ideational diversity at the 5Cs.

Regardless of the Supreme Court’s upcoming decisions in the cases against UNC and Harvard, Diament maintained that this will not be the last time institutions of higher education in the United States face legal challenges when trying to create diverse classes.

“Even if they end affirmative action, people will still accuse institutions of using affirmative action, and they will sue constantly,” Diament said. “If these schools can maintain their diversity after not being able to use race, they’re still going to be accused of using race.”

Harvey Mudd College and Claremont McKenna did not respond to TSL’s request for comment at the time of publication.

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