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The front of a building
Colorado State University, located in Fort Collins, enrolls over 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Colorado colleges and universities Thursday staunchly defended what they see as a need to preserve diversity on campuses following a U.S. Supreme Court decision that removes race from the list of factors higher education institutions can use in considering which students to admit.

The Supreme Court ruling — which determined admissions programs that incorporate race at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina are unlawful — signals the end of affirmative action and, consequently, could jeopardize longtime diversity efforts among campuses across the country.

Affirmative action “treated a person’s race or ethnicity as a distinct category that could be considered by the college as part of a holistic consideration of the student’s application,” said Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center and a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder’s School of Education.

The court’s decision, Welner said, means that a higher education institution cannot address a person’s race in and of itself as a factor in the admissions process. Doing so is now unconstitutional.

Welner echoed concerns of other higher education experts who warn that eliminating affirmative action will dramatically affect the makeup of students across campuses, with more white and some groups of Asian American students attending college and fewer Black and Latino students enrolling.

Colleges and universities in Colorado rushed to release statements in response to the new ruling, with many resolving to continue their push for student diversity.

“The University of Colorado is unwavering in its commitment to fostering a diverse, inclusive, and equitable environment that embraces and celebrates individuals from all backgrounds,” CU President Todd Saliman and chancellors of the Boulder, Denver and Colorado Springs campuses wrote in a joint statement.

“We will continue to employ admission processes that consider the whole student and their ability to succeed in our academically rigorous and supportive environment.” 

The university system’s board policy defines diversity in terms of demographics as well as life experiences and perspectives.

A colorful sunset behind a parking lot
The sun sets from Metropolitan State University of Denver on Feb. 11, 2022. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

CU-Boulder has asked undergraduate and graduate students to identify their race on applications, but that factor didn’t necessarily influence whether a student was accepted to the university, said Jennifer McDuffie, interim associate vice chancellor of enrollment management. 

“It did give us the ability to see more holistically information about the student where they’re not in front of us in an interview setting,” McDuffie told The Colorado Sun, adding that “from the admissions perspective, race has never been a deciding factor.”

Still, the university plans to remove questions pertaining to race in its applications and is in the process of auditing individual schools to better understand how faculty members use applicant information when evaluating candidates, she said.

Additionally, campuses in the University of Colorado system “are reviewing the decision of the court and will evaluate the appropriate next steps for any programs deemed in conflict with the new legal standard,” spokesman Jeff Howard wrote in an email.

Other Colorado universities are insulated from the Supreme Court’s decision. 

For instance, Metropolitan State University of Denver — one of Colorado’s most diverse higher education institutions with students of color representing more than half of its student body — will not be impacted by the federal ruling, according to Vaughn Toland, executive director of admissions and outreach.

The school is the only modified open access university in Colorado, meaning any student who is age 20 or older and who has a high school diploma or passed the General Education Diploma tests is automatically admitted, Toland said. Applicants age 19 and younger are evaluated based on their high school grade-point average. A small number of students do not meet MSU Denver’s requirements and are put through a deeper review, though race is not part of the consideration process, Toland said.

However, the university remains a strong proponent of affirmative action, he added.

“We know that diversity adds richness, and it creates a more rich learning environment on campus and everyone benefits from that,” Toland said.

Still, other Colorado schools are pausing and taking a close look at whether they will need to tweak their admissions processes to comply with the new ruling. Colorado State University in a statement stressed that the Supreme Court’s decision will not affect its longstanding process for undergraduate admissions — which includes analyzing students through factors including personal experiences and academic achievements. 

Regarding the application process for graduate students, CSU is working with each department and its graduate school to conclude whether any changes need to be made “to ensure graduate admissions comply with the direction set by the court,” according to the statement.

The Cybersecurity Building is part of the College of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

The University of Denver, a private research university, is continuing to commit to student diversity as it sorts out how the court’s decision will affect its admissions processes. A university spokesperson declined an interview as the institution reviews the details of the new ruling, but a statement from Chancellor Jeremy Haefner highlighted how critical diversity is to DU.

“What I want to affirm to the University of Denver community is that this ruling does not weaken the University of Denver’s commitment to diversity in our student body,” Haefner said in the statement. “We continue to believe educational communities — and societies — are made stronger and more equitable when universities and colleges cultivate intentional diversity. Race-conscious decision-making is just one of many tools the University of Denver uses to ensure a diverse student body.”

The institution is still trying to grasp how the new ruling might reshape its undergraduate and graduate admissions processes and still aims to prioritize diversity while complying with legal requirements, according to the statement.

How will Colorado colleges and universities continue to diversify their campuses?

Welner, of the National Education Policy Center, called the Supreme Court’s ruling a politically charged decision.

“This current Supreme Court is very much a political decision-making body that starts with the political decision it wants to make and works backwards to come up with legal justification for it,” he said.

Welner also raised an eyebrow at the Supreme Court ruling as he believes it disregards the reality of racial inequality across the country.

“The majority opinion is disingenuous and really problematic in its ahistorical treatment of the role race and racism has played in America,” Welner said.

States that have already banned affirmative action among public college and university admissions — including California, Texas, Florida and Michigan — have tried to implement “race-neutral policies” in an attempt to maintain some level of diversity, Welner said, but those efforts have led to less diversity on campuses.

The outcomes in those states give higher education experts like Welner little hope that the Supreme Court’s decision will make campuses more diverse, particularly at highly selective schools that have few spots for the number of applicants.

“Given this ruling, it’s going to be a struggle for selective colleges and universities to maintain even the limited diversity that they have right now,” he said.

One of the main ways colleges and universities might have a fighting chance at building on their diversity efforts is by carefully reviewing essays and interview responses in which students demonstrate how their racial identity has influenced or hindered their achievements. The ruling does not limit students in expressing how their background has molded their lives.

“They will follow the lead of the Supreme Court’s majority opinion, turn to the essays and interviews and hope that applicants are able to let the universities know how their racial and ethnic backgrounds are relevant to their accomplishments in their lives,” Welner said.

Those components of student applications will be particularly important for colleges and universities to consider in their admissions process, and will also be a critical part of conversations that high school guidance counselors like Jen Smela will have with students plotting out their next steps after graduation.

Smela, president of the Colorado School Counselor Association, said that the Supreme Court decision will nudge guidance counselors to focus even more on helping individual students determine the best course of action to meet their goals after high school and navigate college admissions processes.

Counselors, she said, must help each student they advise “talk about their own lived experiences and how that can reflect in their college applications.”