Helping Financial Aid Offices Understand the Legal Realities Surrounding Diversity and Inclusion Practices

By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter

Institutions of higher education may find their heads spinning from the glut of headlines depicting the legal challenges schools face as they attempt to adopt and implement more diversity and inclusion practices when it comes to admissions and financial aid.

As part of NASFAA’s Leadership Symposium webinar series, Art Coleman, co-founder and managing partner of EducationCounsel, on Tuesday outlined what institutions need to know as diversity and inclusion principles become priorities in their admissions and financial aid practices.

Coleman detailed what he called “the new wave” of legal cases that schools such as Harvard, Yale, and the University of North Carolina are facing that challenge institutions’ admissions practices, advising schools that their best defense is to be able to clearly articulate their mission when it comes to their goals, and frame it authentically.

“What you want to see as a foundation … is that the interest behind the educational benefits of diversity are authentic and mission-driven. They are tied to the identity of the institution,” he said. “And you can demonstrate that not only through sort of broad research in the social science field that is growing by the week that demonstrates the importance of a diverse learning environment for the benefit of all students, but also through institution-specific policy and practice.”

Being able to clearly communicate an admissions strategy with defined terms, while translating those concepts into action is key for institutions to advance their greater goals, Coleman added. 

Further, in order for schools to create inclusive learning environments, institutions must balance the use of admissions and financial aid practices to expand opportunity while also taking into consideration a wide range of legal, policy-related, political, and practical implications, Coleman said.

While providing an overview of the relevant legal landscape, paying particular attention to key definitions and current federal laws, Coleman detailed what obstacles institutions utilizing a race-conscious admissions policy should be prepared to face.

For financial aid offices striving for equity in aid offer packaging, Coleman said it's important to analyze and evaluate the necessity of considering factors such as race, gender, and ethnicity when it comes to achieving institutional diversity goals.

He suggested aid offices complete a full inventory of all aid policies, practices, and programs to establish a comprehensive overview of all the different kinds of institutional aid schools award, as well as documenting the sources from which it comes.

“You can't evaluate what you have if you don't know what to have,” Coleman said. “And so inventory if all policies and practices, including those that stem from external donor aid is really important.”

From there, Coleman said, most of the work is done and aid offices will only have to add to or amend their inventory over time.

One of the most difficult challenges for aid offices that Coleman outlined is defining what success looks like with respect to the educational benefits of diversity.

Coleman pointed to both research and practical experience, as well as recent legal precedents, in laying out the criteria for success: compositional diversity, student experience, and student outcomes. 

“When you've got these three pieces working together, the evaluation is clear — you can identify the gaps, and the gaps in student experience and outcomes can help inform this question about where the compositional diversity gaps are,” Coleman said.

 

Publication Date: 2/18/2021


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