UNC-Chapel Hill Admissions On Trial
I have been following the affirmative action cases under oral argument before the US Supreme Court. These cases involve Harvard and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Four years ago the Harvard case began its journey through the Federal court system. Back then, I wrote about Harvard, wondering why the university had to play 42 varsity sports.
About a year later a Duke economist, Peter Arcidiacono, co-authored a paper that essentially addressed the same question, but also considered legacies, children of faculty, and a Dean’s Interest List.
He and his co-authors looked at data from nearly 167,000 domestic applicants to Harvard between fall 2009 and fall 2014. The paper concluded, among other points, that each of preferences primarily benefit white students. Over 43 percent of white admits fell under one or more of these preferences, compared to less than 16% of admits who are Asian-American, Black or Hispanic. Recruited athletes alone made up over 16 percent of white admits.
Harvard might win their case before the Supreme Court. However, I believe that they have lost in a court of public opinion. Most applicants to Harvard are not recruited athletes, legacies, children of faculty nor marked for a Dean’s Interest List. The more negative news coverage that Harvard’s case receives, the more discouraged that prospective future applicants will feel about their chances of getting into Harvard.
Quite frankly, I am more interested in the future of admissions at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Unlike Harvard, which can attract a diverse student body from all over the world, UNC-Chapel Hill must fill 82 percent of its undergraduate enrollment from the State of North Carolina. UNC-Chapel Hill is also one of the most selective public universities in America for residents and non-residents alike. It is one of the more affordable options among selective institutions, especially for in-state students, who pay less than $9,000 in tuition and fees.
Costs alone are a good reason why applications to UNC-Chapel Hill rose from 29,500 in 2012-13 to 53,800 in 2021-22. The size of the freshman class grew from 3,900 to 4,700 over that time. No less than 43 percent of accepted students decided to deposit, impressive for any university of any size. But the acceptance rate also dropped from a high of 30 percent in 2015-16 to 19 percent in 2021-22. Those who can get in want to stay. Freshman retention has never gone below 95 percent over the past two decades. Over 85 percent of a freshman class graduates on time. The University of Virginia is the only public flagship that does better at graduating their classes.
UNC-Chapel Hill has considered standardized test scores to be very important, even during the pandemic when admissions became test optional.
The SAT range for the middle 50 percent of this year’s incoming class was between 1340 and 1500 for all students and close to that for North Carolina residents, Non-residents had a higher range, between 1400 and 1540. I found the ACT range for the previous cycle, which was 29-33.
The plaintiff in both Supreme Court cases, Students for Fair Admissions, claimed that racial preferences at UNC-Chapel Hill have resulted in discrimination against Asian and Asian-American applicants.
This year’s incoming freshman class at UNC-Chapel Hill was:
- 65% White or Caucasian
- 22% Asian or Asian American
- 10% Black or African American
- 10% Hispanic, Latino or Latina
For sake of comparison I looked at last year’s freshman class for North Carolina State University
- 70% White or Caucasian
- 9% Asian or Asian American
- 6% Black or African American
- 8% Hispanic, Latino or Latina
I also looked at East Carolina University, which accepted 94 percent of the applicants for the Class of 2025.
- 63% White or Caucasian
- 2% Asian or Asian American
- 17% Black or African American
- 9% Hispanic, Latino or Latina
And for the State of North Caroiina from the 2020 US Census
- 62% White or Caucasian
- 3% Asian or Asian American
- 21% Black or African American
- 11% Hispanic, Latino or Latina
East Carolina University’s undergraduate student body most closely reflected the population of the state.
Now let’s look at admissions criteria for UNC-Chapel Hill, NC State and East Carolina.
As I covered in my post about test=optional admissions, a Common Data Set lists 19 academic and non-academic data points that are considered in admissions, ranked as Very Important, Important, Considered and Not Considered.
For UNC-Chapel Hill these data points ranked as follows:
- Very Important: Rigor, Standardized Test Scores, Essay, Recommendation(s), Extracurricular Activities, Talent/Ablity, Character/Personal Qualities, State Residency
- Important: Class Rank, Academic GPA, Volunteer Work, Work Experience
- Considered: First Generation, Alumni/ae Relation, Racial/Ethnic Status
- Not Considered: Interview, Geographical Residence, Religious affiliation/commitment, Interest.
North Carolina State is a less selective school, though it is more selective than many other flagships in other states. Their data points are different
- Very Important: Rigor, Class Rank, Academic GPA
- Important: Standardized Test Scores, Essay
- Considered: Extracurricular Activities, Talent/Ability, Character/Personal Qualities, First Generation, Alumni/ae Relation, Racial/Ethnic Status, Volunteer Work, Work Experience, Geographical Residence, State Residency, Interest
- Not Considered: Interview, Religious affiliation/commitment
And for East Carolina University
- Very Important: Rigor, Academic GPA, State Residency,
- Important: Class Rank
- Considered: Essay, Extracurricular Activities, Talent/Ability, Character/Personal Qualities, First Generation, Alumni/ae Relation, , Volunteer Work, Work Experience, Geographical Residence, Interest
- Not Considered: Racial/Ethnic Status, Interview, Geographical Residence, Religious affiliation/commitment, Test Scores (at this time).
From comparing data points, it is easy to see why UNC-Chapel Hill is a far more selective school. However, in pandemic times it was less possible for prospective applicants to work or engage in extracurricular activities, especially if you lived in a less-resourced community. It was also less possible to take standardized tests. It’s easy to conclude that a less-resourced applicant would be at a disadvantage in admissions, even when race was considered. More interesting, the least selective school of the three, East Carolina University, had the most diverse student body while the school did not consider race in admissions.
Athletics are important at UNC-Chapel Hill
UNC-Chapel Hill competes in 26 NCAA D-1 varsity scholarship sports with considerable success in most of them. The entire athletic program won the very first Director’s Cup in 1993-94 and has finished second four times since then. Athletics are likely to remain an important part of campus life, no matter how admissions policies might change in the future. They are popular at this university.
What could happen if UNC-Chapel Hill loses its case?
Personally, I find the discrimination claims brought by the Students for Fair Admissions to be misleading. Asians are far more represented at the university than they are within the state’s population. But a freshman class at the university is less reflective of the Blank and Hispanic population of the State of North Carolina.
However, there is a 6-3 conservative majority on the Court that is likely to lean towards overturning race as a consideration in admissions. Diversity has been mentioned as the objective in considering race. But so has the need to make an educational opportunity more accessible to groups who have been excluded in the past. I covered the obligations of a college admissions office to their school in my book, The Good College. Now here I need to share thoughts as to how admissions decisions are made.
In selective admissions I believe that an admissions officer needs to consider:
- Preparedness (GPA/Rigor/Test Scores/Recommendations/sometimes Essay or Interview/Experiences outside the classroom)
- Potential (Test Scores in context of a high school and vs. other applicants from that high school/Recommendations/Character/Sometimes Essay or Interview/Experiences outside the classroom)
- Ability for the family to pay vs. where the student ranks among the potential admit pool
- Demonstrated interest-sometimes
UNC-Chapel Hill as a state university must give preference to residents of North Carolina. If the university seeks to have a diverse student body, or places a high level of importance on athletics, it is likely to place more emphasis on potential to target students from low-income families or under-represented groups.
One obvious result of a conservative-leaning decision will be that Black and Hispanic students will be more discouraged to apply to UNC-Chapel Hill, therefore they will be less represented within the student body.
This has happened in other states where race was removed as a consideration in admissions, but different schools in different states go in different directions.’
- Removing race as a consideration at less selective public colleges might not limit accessibility but it could affect affordability, if scholarships that considered race were eliminated.
- Race does not become a consideration in selective admissions, even when most candidates present strong credentials
However, UNC-Chapel Hill, as a state university has worked harder to honor obligations towards accessibility and affordability than most other flagships, especially through the Carolina Covenant and C-Step partnerships with North Carolina community colleges.. I doubt that the state government wants to walk away from those obligations, since North Carolina is a growing state with an increasingly diverse population that still attracts families with young children.
Republicans control both houses of the state legislature, although the state has a Democratic governor. The current 28-22 majority in the State Senate and the 69-51 majority in the General Assembly would not be enough to override a governor’s veto, but both houses are up for election this year. My suspicion is that the Republicans will remain in control of both houses. A Supreme Court ruling against the flagship university will lead a conservative legislature and trustees to take action to respond to the decision
California’s public universities went test-free in admissions in admissions last year, removing one barrier that discourages students from under-resourced backgrounds from applying to these schools.
The results were that the most selective universities had more diverse freshman classes then they had under test-mandatory admissions. However, a conservative legislature and trustees in North Carolina could go in the opposite direction: bring back test-mandatory admissions at the flagship, if they believe that high scores are a measure of quality and predicted success. University trustees and Republican lawmakers in Florida came to that conclusion.
Another option is to give more consideration to other circumstances, especially for first-generation students and those from low-income families, though many of those applicants are also White.
Geographical residence, not considered now, could be considered in admissions. Residents of gritty urban centers could be considered, but so could those who come from more rural parts of the state. However, this has costs in terms of financial aid as well as student support services. The university trustees will still want to maintain high retention and graduation rates.
I don’t see the North Carolina legislature or the UNC-Chapel Hill trustees headed in either direction to try to maintain a diverse student body. One idea comes from a more liberal line of thought; the other is expensive to execute in difficult economic times. However, the university could dramatically increase non-resident tuition and fees. But that would favor a wealthier group of out-of-state students who are more likely to be White.
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