The role of race in college admissions has returned to the spotlight, after the U.S. Justice Department said it will take another look at Harvard University’s admissions policy. Any challenge to affirmative action could have little effect on some local colleges and universities.
Take Roger Williams University in Bristol: the school accepts a large majority to its seaside Bristol campus. According to university president Donald Farish, that means there is little thought given to factors outside academic achievement, such as race.
“We’re accepting 75 percent of our applicant pool, so the people that are not being excluded based on whether we have enough or too many white people or Asians or what have you, it’s going to be based on their academic record in general,” said Farish.
Farish said ultimately the goal of Roger Williams University is to accurately reflect the racial makeup of the region. That hasn't happened yet. Farish said economic barriers are the largest factor keeping many students of color from attending the private institution. As a small, private institution, tuition is expensive, and there’s little money for scholarships, so students tend to be wealthier and whiter.
But Farish said affirmative action remains important, even for colleges that are largely unaffected by the policy. To do away with it would imply there is no more need for higher education to reflect the country’s demographics.
“That’s a huge leap of faith that’s just not being borne out by reality,” said Farish. “If we had eliminated race as a factor then we would already have proportionate numbers of people from different backgrounds on our campuses, and we don’t.”
Farish said universities with very competitive admissions, like Brown University, are more likely to feel the effects of any court challenge to affirmative action. Brown has released a statement standing by its policy using race as one admissions factor, in order to build a diverse student body.
Roger Williams’ President Farish said changes to affirmative action policy would raise larger questions about government influence over higher education.
“How far does the federal government go in terms of directing the way in which a private university admits students?” said Farish. “I think absent of showing that there is inherent bias against a particular population of people, the government is getting into some pretty thin ice with respect to being overly directive.”
Affirmative action began in the 1960s as a way to increase racial diversity at U.S. Colleges, but it has been controversial with conservatives who say it favors race over academic qualifications.