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COMMENTARY: We can do better -- SCOTUS college admissions ruling creates new barrier

Kathleen Harring
Muhlenberg College
Muhlenberg College President Kathleen Harring.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — What do we lose as a nation when we make it harder for some of the most gifted among us to earn a college degree? What do we gain when we leverage our nation’s strengths?

On Thursday, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Students for Fair Admissions vs. President and Fellows of Harvard College, overturning 45 years of precedent for the consideration of race in higher education admissions. Without question, this places our nation on the wrong side of history. And, judging by the evidence offered by states that already have bans on race-conscious admissions, this will create more barriers to higher education among individuals who face racial and ethnic discrimination and make it more difficult for colleges and universities to build a diverse community of students we want to attract.

What remains to be seen is how much damage this ruling might do to our competitiveness as a nation — and how colleges and universities can help mitigate it.

The United States has the world’s largest and strongest higher education system, the most prolific feeder of professionals to the biggest and most dynamic economy. Of the world’s 2,000 largest companies, 575 are U.S.-based, according to Forbes. We are also at the center of global invention, with Americans having been awarded more Nobel Prizes than citizens of any other country. The thousands of innovators, creators, managers and leaders that emerge from our colleges and universities are the intellectual fuel that powers this engine.

At Muhlenberg College, where I am president, and similar top-ranked colleges, nearly 100 percent of graduates enter full-time employment or graduate studies every year. They and college graduates like them have played key roles in the unparalleled economic growth and national prosperity we all have enjoyed in recent decades. This success — this national dynamism — is supercharged by our diversity. Research by McKinsey and others lays out the business case for diverse teams; they simply perform better financially, and their outperformance accelerates over time. Today, the best colleges prepare students to thrive in a competitive, global economy where the top organizations employ diverse teams to drive their success.

So, how do we continue generating that level of success, given this latest challenge?

The nation’s population is becoming more diverse. Higher education is already facing the "enrollment cliff," the dramatic drop in the college-age population beginning in 2025. If colleges are truly dedicated to creating a diverse learning community, they can make it happen, even now — but it will take institutional commitment and a dedication to innovative recruitment and admissions efforts.

"If colleges are truly dedicated to creating a diverse learning community, they can make it happen, even now — but it will take institutional commitment and a dedication to innovative recruitment and admissions efforts."
Muhlenberg College President Kathleen Harring

A new report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that class-conscious admissions practices and pulling from larger and more diverse applicant pools can result in more diversity than the current system. These are two initiatives we at Muhlenberg have been prioritizing for years.

Our Class of 2026 is the most diverse in Muhlenberg’s history with 29% students of color, 21% first-generation students and 24% Pell-grant recipients (awarded only to undergraduate students who display exceptional financial need). Just as importantly, we are committed to supporting all our students and building a sense of belonging and connection even before they set foot on campus, as well as throughout their college years and beyond.

We were recently named an American Talent Initiative (ATI) High-Flier, one of 28 national leaders in lower-income student enrollment and graduation rates. We received this distinction for our steady gains in lower-income student enrollment since 2016, our growing share of Pell Grant recipients, and our innovative recruitment, enrollment and retention practices.

We have implemented comprehensive and coordinated academic and social support programs, as well as financial support, including Emergency Grants and Experiential Learning Funds, for the extra and hidden costs of college that can quickly derail a lower-income student, providing broad availability of meaningful experiences outside the classroom — the kind of experiences that take the intellectual foundations of a liberal arts education and turn them into real-world knowledge and competencies.

Our college has recruitment strategies and decades of partnerships with community-based organizations that allow us to engage a broad pool of talented students. We also partner with seven community colleges, another source of socioeconomic diversity, with affiliation agreements that ensure students a smoother transition to a four-year degree. In 2019, we announced annual scholarships for Phi Theta Kappa members, an honor society for two-year college students.

Muhlenberg will, of course, continue complying with the law. We will continue to practice personalized and holistic reviews in admissions decisions. But the national and global challenges before us are daunting. And while the Supreme Court’s decision places a barrier in the way of creating learning communities composed of the most talented students that will drive American success, I think as a society and as a sector we can overcome it.

As we get ready to celebrate our nation’s birthday, it is increasingly clear that this is not just the right thing to do — it is the only way to ensure that the future of our country is as vibrant and relevant as its past.

Kathleen Harring is the president of Muhlenberg College in Allentown.