ICYMI: Administrators Discuss the Financial Aid Implications of SCOTUS’ Decision of Race-Conscious Admission Policies

By Maria Carrasco, NASFAA Staff Reporter

Financial aid professionals gathered last week at NASFAA’s Leadership and Legislative Conference & Expo to learn and discuss the financial aid and enrollment management implications of the Supreme Court’s future ruling on race-conscious admission policies and what it means for financial aid. 

The session, led by Chuck Knepfle, vice president for enrollment management at Portland State University, and Justin Draeger, NASFAA president and CEO, focused on the potential impacts of two pending U.S. Supreme Court cases — Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) v. Harvard University and SFFA vs. the University of North Carolina — which challenge the legitimacy of race-conscious admission policies and seek to overturn decades of federal court precedent. The Supreme Court is expected to make a decision on these two cases in the summer. 

Draeger began the session by noting how the Supreme Court decision could present both challenges and opportunities to financial aid administrators in terms of leading the enrollment strategy of their institution. 

“Every school here has a similar mission. But there are probably slight differences. Each of you has a different enrollment demographic. Each of you has a slightly different demographic objective. You have different resources that you're bringing to bear on your student populations. And you probably have to have a handle on both the industry and the politics of your board, the state in which you reside, and your own administrations,” Draeger said. “The part that I'm trying to frame here is that there's an opportunity, I think, for each of you to play a strategic role in addition to the planning role as it relates to this conversation on your campus.”

The session at NASFAA’s leadership conference followed a webinar NASFAA held on the topic in January, which Knepfle led with Art Coleman, managing partner and co-founder of EducationCounsel, LLC. NASFAA members can watch that webinar for free on demand.

Knepfle said the session served as a way for members to find out what the current environment is at different institutions around race-conscious admissions and to share how their institutions are planning on handling the Supreme Court decision.

“There will undoubtedly be schools who decide that ‘We're just going to put it out there and let them sue us,’” Knepfle said. “And there are going to be others who change every single scholarship they have to remove any mention or consideration of race. There will be a continuum of reactions and I think it'll be really good for us to hear from each other on how we believe our schools will approach this complicated upcoming landscape.”

The session recapped possible outcomes, including if Harvard and UNC prevail, if there’s a split decision, or if the ruling comes down in favor of SFFA. Knepfle noted that there could be several possible outcomes if SFFA wins. On one hand, the court could prohibit any consideration of race in college admissions; on the other hand, the court could significantly limit precedent but permit consideration of race tied to individual identity or lived experience. 

Members also learned about implications for financial aid and scholarships, such as holistic review and how the Supreme Court decision will impact not just financial aid offices, but different departments in their institution. Schools were encouraged to examine their scholarships and financial aid programs using different lenses, including the criteria used in determining a scholarship, the funding source (whether institutional, quasi-institutional or external) and the amount of control the school had in determining the recipients.  

Later Knepfle and Draeger polled members, asking them to characterize their institution's risk tolerance level around race-conscious admissions on a scale of one to five, with one being a low risk tolerance and five being a high risk tolerance. Most attendees (38%) ranked the risk tolerance level at three, followed by two, at 31%, and one, at 20%. Only 8% of members ranked their risk tolerance level at four, and 3% ranked their level at five. 

During a discussion of the results, one attendee said their institution had a lower risk tolerance and had already started looking at pooling and matching, and seeing what to do with endowed funds. Another attendee said their institution’s risk tolerance for this issue was low because their institution frequently has been  sued over race-conscious admissions. One other attendee described their institution’s risk tolerance level as a four due to the current politics of their state, which will most likely impact how the financial aid office deals with race-conscious admissions before the Supreme Court makes its decision. 

Draeger encouraged participants to not only think about their institution’s risk tolerance levels, but their risk tolerance thresholds, that is the point where a line might be crossed that would change the politics or decision points on campus. 

Knepfle and Draeger also asked attendees to again characterize their institutions' risk level going forward after participating in the session and webinar. Most ranked their risk level at two, at 38%, followed by one, at 25%, and three, at 24%. Just 10% of members ranked their risk level at four, and 3% ranked their risk level at five. 

One attendee spoke about how they think their institution’s risk level is low because their school has an open admission policy and wasn’t already using a pool and match method. Another attendee said they ranked their institution at two because their institution’s endowed awarding and scholarship process has preference given policies. And another said their institution’s risk level is a four because it is a minority-serving institution with significant support programs for underrepresented students by affiliation.

The session ended with audience questions, discussing concerns about their institution’s risk level, and sharing strategies their institutions were taking for the Supreme Court’s decision. Knepfle also asked the group to share “creative” ways to award aid to historically marginalized and diverse populations that don't use race as a factor. Some members said a possible solution was partnerships with targeted high schools that have a diverse student body. Another member shared that their institution offers scholarships for all students, regardless of race or gender, who champion rights for Black Lives Matter, women, and other social issues.

Knepfle reminded members of other key resources members can access around the Supreme Court decision, including the College Board Access & Diversity Collaborative website, NACAC and NASFAA’s Toward a More Equitable Future report, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) diversity and the law website


Publication Date: 2/15/2023

David S | 2/15/2023 1:36:41 PM

Thank you for leading this conversation, and I hope it continues. The cases brought by the so-called "SFFA" are apparently based on admissible applicants not being offered admission. The two schools in these cases, especially one of them, get a deluge of applications for every available seat; the one in Massachusetts literally only admits one of about every 20-25 applicants. Their facilities can only accommodate so many students, so they have no choice but to turn down many perfectly qualified applicants because they have such an excess. So one thing I've never heard critics of these so-called "highly rejective" schools address is what do you do when you have 25+ applicants for every seat you have available?

Of course that particular university is in almost every way an outlier in American higher education. But the case before SCOTUS is going to have a domino effect everywhere, not just on the schools that automatically turn away the majority of their applicants. The impact will be negative; combine this with higher ed's affordability problem, and we as a nation are once again (or maybe still) in danger of leaving way too many people behind. We have to do better than this.

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