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How Notre Dame will maintain a diverse class without the help of affirmative action

| Wednesday, August 23, 2023

The Supreme Court’s June ruling striking down the use of affirmative action in college admissions will make it harder for Notre Dame to enroll a racially diverse class, professors say. In the wake of the decision, the admissions department is trying to find legal methods to build a racially diverse class.

Notre Dame has employed race-conscious admissions since at least the 1980s, according to the foreword of “Black Domers,” a book about racial integration at the University. Notre Dame, however, has never considered race as a standalone factor, according to current and previous admissions leaders.

Over the past 25 years, the percentage of international students and students of color has more than doubled, increasing from 16% to 42%. Although the court’s ruling will make efforts to enroll a more diverse class harder, Notre Dame admissions plans to leverage options left available by the court to enroll racially diverse classes, vice president for undergraduate enrollment Micki Kidder said. Additionally, she noted the University looks beyond race when considering applicants.

“Applicants may express the impact of their racial identity on their lived experiences, but Notre Dame will not consider race as a standalone factor,” Kidder wrote in an email statement.

Before the ruling: Notre Dame’s racial demographic trends

Racial and ethnic diversity at Notre Dame has grown substantially since 1997, according to the earliest available common data set. More than 40% of the incoming class of 2027 consists of students of color and international students. 

The percentage of Hispanic students on campus has increased from about 7% of the undergraduate student body in 1997 to 13% in 2022. In 1990, international students made up just 2.1% of the student body. That number jumped to 3% in 2010 and then 6.8% in 2022. Meanwhile, 85% of the 1997-98 freshman class were white students from the U.S. In 2022, that proportion dropped to 58%.

While the overall percentage of students of color and international students has increased, some minority groups on campus have seen their representation on campus stagnate or even decline in the last decade. Asian students in 1997 accounted for 3.9% of undergraduates. In 2010, this number rose to 6.1% before falling to 5.7% in 2022.

In 1997, Black students made up 3.4% of the undergraduate community. Black student enrollment fell to 3.2% in 2010 and has increased slightly to 3.9% as of 2022. The University’s population of students who identify solely as Black falls in the bottom quartile of the Association of American Universities private institutions, according to the Board of Trustees’ 2021 Report on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

(Note: the common data set and Notre Dame admissions have categorized those who identify as two or more races or unknown separately since 2010. Students who identify as two or more races but are Hispanic are counted only as Hispanic. These numbers are available in the common data sets.)

While enrollment for racial and ethnic minority students has increased over the last two decades, the percentage of minority students who said they were satisfied with the climate for minorities on campus decreased from 61% in 2010 to 53% in 2020, according to the senior survey.

Liam Kelly | The Observer


Notre Dame’s evolving diversity policy

Before the Supreme Court’s ruling, Notre Dame publicly supported affirmative action.

In August 2022, Notre Dame conveyed their support for affirmative action by joining an amicus brief with 56 other Catholic colleges and universities supporting the admissions programs of Harvard University and the University of North Carolina.

Recently, the University doubled down on its research to increase racial and ethnic diversity on campus. In August 2020, University President Fr. Jenkins and the University Board of Trustees commissioned a “Report on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” following the death of George Floyd. The report, published in June 2021, committed the University to having a “visible presence of Black, Hispanic/Latino, Asian and Native American members of this community in every aspect of University life.”

Now, the ruling threatens to stall or even reverse what progress has been made in increasing ethnic diversity at Notre Dame, associate law professor Jennifer Mason McAward said during a panel on affirmative action.

“We know from the experience of states that have banned affirmative action by their own state law — California and Michigan for example … it leads to severely plummeting numbers of underrepresented minorities on elite college campuses,” McAward said. “I would think that Notre Dame would be no different given that track record.”

In the wake of the ruling, Jenkins issued a statement on social media platforms reaffirming Notre Dame’s commitment to diversity.

“Catholic mission compels us to build a class reflecting the diversity of experiences and gifts of the human family,” Jenkins said. “We will study the Supreme Court’s decision and consider the implications for our admissions process as we strive to fulfill our distinctive mission.”

After the ruling: Increasing diversity through essay prompts and high school visits

Although the ruling prohibits the use of affirmative action, it does leave the door open for the use of other admissions methods to increase diversity.

Kidder mentioned essay prompts and visits to high schools as two key ways in which Notre Dame will try to create racial diverse classes. Essay prompts will invite students to talk about their background while the University will seek to build relationships with high schools with racially diverse student bodies

In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts affirmed “nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration or otherwise.”

Each year, Notre Dame introduces new essay questions for its writing supplement. On Aug. 1, Notre Dame revealed this year’s prompts, one of which asks prospective students to consider “what is distinctive about your personal experiences and development (e.g., family support, culture, disability, personal background, community, etc.)?”

This new question, which Kidder said was influenced by the Supreme Court’s ruling, aims to give prospective students the opportunity to discuss how their racial identities have impacted their lived experiences. Kidder added, however, that asking applicants about their unique personal experiences has always been a priority for Notre Dame.

“We have consistently posed questions that invite applicants to share enthusiasm for the Notre Dame mission, lived experiences [and] commitment to serving as leaders of strong moral character,” Kidder said. “I wouldn’t actually say it’s a wholesale shift.”

Whatever steps universities take going forward, however, Roberts’ opinion warns that “universities may not simply establish through application essays or other means the regime we hold unlawful today.”

Kidder made clear any continued efforts to increase diversity, essay questions or otherwise, would be within the bounds of the law. She said the University looks for specific qualities in students and does not consider race as a standalone factor.

“The qualities that we look for in that comprehensive review … are going to be students who celebrate authentic commitment to other human beings, they have a commitment to celebrating a diverse presence of the Notre Dame family, committed to building community and being good citizens,” Kidder said. “The essays give us an opportunity to really celebrate those qualities.”

The University is also focused on building relationships with “high schools serving diverse populations of prospective students,” Kidder said.

Notre Dame currently works with QuestBridge, the Nicholas Academic Center in Orange County, California and College Horizons, a program that helps Native American students access higher education.

“The outreach and the building of trusting relationships on the front end is really important to us as we build a robust pipeline of very talented, very other-centered, very diverse, very mission-oriented applicants,” Kidder said.

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