Hwang: After Supreme Court Decision, Northwestern Must Make Admissions More, Not Less, Transparent

Scott Hwang, Op-Ed Contributor

It was historic and utterly unsurprising. The U.S. Supreme Court found race-based university admissions policies to be unconstitutional on Thursday, forcing universities across the country — Northwestern included — to rethink the way they evaluate applicants.

University President Michael Schill responded by affirming NU’s commitment to diversity, pledging to work within the law to pursue this goal. As he should. A diverse student body has benefits for all students, and it is necessary to fulfill Northwestern’s responsibility as a ladder of opportunity for students of underprivileged, underrepresented backgrounds. 

But it will be the university’s actions, not its words, that matter from now on. Thursday’s decision adds even more uncertainty to an already opaque admissions process, and NU owes it to applicants and students alike to specify how it will move forward.

Make no mistake: navigating the post-affirmative action landscape won’t be simple. For one thing, race can still play a role in some parts of the process.

“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,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his majority opinion.

Confused? So am I. If an applicant writes about overcoming racial hardship, how can the admissions team assess the applicant’s personal qualities outside the context of race?

There is no one-step solution to promoting diversity without explicitly considering race. Ideally, all aspects of the admissions process should be open to reconsideration. Will personal statements become more important? Will standardized testing continue to lose importance? Will admissions alter their policies toward legacy students and athletes? 

These specifics matter. Assuming class sizes don’t increase — a worthy discussion for another time, perhaps — any change that increases one applicant’s chance of admission must decrease another’s. No doubt, the University wants to tread carefully to avoid potential lawsuits. That’s why I worry it will continue to do what it has always done: keep quiet and hope to avoid provoking litigious parents. This strikes me as the wrong approach, for two reasons.

First, there is a risk that this decision will discourage underrepresented minority students from applying, making it even more difficult to select diverse classes.

In 1998, California banned affirmative action at its public universities, including the University of California system. A 2022 study by Zachary Bleemer, an assistant professor of economics at Princeton University, examined what happened next. The admissions rate for underrepresented minority students at the more selective UC schools (Los Angeles, Berkeley and San Diego) fell by 46% in the two years after the ban; overall admissions rates only dropped by 13% for comparison. The number of Black and Hispanic UC applicants dropped by 12–13%. 

It’s not unreasonable for a minority applicant to believe that elite universities are much less likely to accept them than they were a year ago. If they decide not to apply, it becomes even harder to select a diverse student body. Northwestern can get ahead of this self-fulfilling prophecy by explaining how it will promote diversity through its admissions policies. 

Second, students have an interest in knowing how Northwestern makes its admissions decisions.

For better or worse, the value of a Northwestern degree rests in no small part on the University’s selectivity. Yes, we learn things, and yes, being part of this community has benefits. But we should be honest: graduating from Northwestern is impressive partly because getting into Northwestern is impressive.

Yet, it’s hard to escape the feeling that admissions are arbitrary. This was true before the Supreme Court’s decision, and it risks being true after. 

A mistrust of elite universities’ murky admissions process helped develop challenges to affirmative action in the first place. Opponents have long argued that universities were unfairly passing over some of the most qualified applicants. We should be assured that NU students earn their spaces here because they were extraordinary applicants, and that requires transparency in the admissions process.

What does transparency look like? NU should release a statement providing details on its admissions process. What stages do the applications go through? How are the admissions factors — grades, essays, letters of recommendation — weighted? How are “optional” materials like standardized tests evaluated? If an applicant writes about how their racial experience affected them, what tests will readers use to distinguish between their race and their demonstrated personal qualities? 

These details are how we know Northwestern is upholding its dual responsibility of choosing a student body that is qualified — dare I say, exceptional — while upholding its promise of diversity. This is how NU can alleviate the concerns of potential underrepresented minority applicants and its students alike. There’s a role open to Northwestern as a leader in the post-affirmative action landscape. It should take it.

Scott Hwang is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.