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Understanding UNC-Chapel Hill's use of race in admissions
UNC's admissions process is extremely unscientific, making conclusions difficult
After eight years of legal wrangling, the case challenging UNC-Chapel Hill’s use of race as a factor in admissions was heard before the U.S. Supreme Court in late October.
Since then, most of the news coverage has been along the lines of "Conservative justices ready to strike down race-based admissions policies." This is a little misleading. The justices ask critical questions about both sides of the issue, which is their job.
Trying to read the tea leaves from a justice's questions to determine where they'll come down is mostly a useless exercise, and I won’t try to predict what will happen. I do, however, think it’s valuable to understand what UNC is doing, now that all the evidence is on the table.
So: Is UNC discriminating against its applicants based on race? I spent a good deal of time over the past two weeks reading through the briefs filed by both sides and listening to the arguments presented, and it's a complicated question. There’s not really a clear answer.
UNC's admissions process is extremely unscientific, which makes it challenging to prove systematic discrimination. There’s no strict formula for who gets in, and no real definition for what a “qualified” student is.
Complicating matters: Both sides in this legal case agree that diversity is a valid goal for a university. They’re simply arguing over how UNC should accomplish this.
Here’s basically how UNC’s admission process works
There are 40 people in the admissions department who quickly read through all of the applications and sort them into a few buckets: shoo-ins, easy rejections, and borderline cases. This is mostly based on class rank, GPA, AP classes and extracurriculars.
Then the borderline cases get a more careful read, and the admissions department staff is looking for some sort of case that can be made for the person to get in, usually based on non-academic factors. UNC says it is looking to put together a well-rounded class of undergraduate students, with varying interests, talents and backgrounds. Solid academics is a prerequisite.
This is where race can be a factor. Based on the evidence presented in the legal case, your race won’t get you admission to the university, but it may get you a longer, closer look.
However, the results can be fairly dramatic. According to modeling from three researchers who studied the data:
If a white, male, not disadvantaged applicant with a 5% chance of admission were instead an African American applicant, all else equal, his admission probability would rise to 69.6%.
What about Harvard?
This is different from how Harvard — the other university involved in this case — considers race. According to legal briefs, Harvard considers race as a factor throughout the admissions process, steadily monitoring the racial makeup of its presumptive incoming class as decisions are made. Harvard also gives its applicants numerical personality scores, with Asian-American students consistently scoring lower.
UNC doesn’t appear to do either of those things. The attorney for Students for Fair Admissions, the group that brought the lawsuit, said in oral arguments that there is no evidence that UNC is “micromanaging” its racial balance. He also conceded that race does not appear to be a major factor used in admitting students.
What does Students for Fair Admissions want?
SFFA wants UNC to achieve its diversity goals without specifically giving race any weight.
Instead, they prefer that UNC give more advantage to students with lower family income, or come up with a more straightforward admissions process — such as admitting the top 7% of all public high schools’ graduating classes, for example.
What happens next?
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue its opinion in summer 2023. It will likely address previous Supreme Court cases that have ruled that race is permissible to use in university admissions decisions, as long as its a minor factor and as long as other, non-race-based policies were considered. Those cases also established that diversity is a worthy goal for a university.
The ruling could be narrowly tailored to this specific case — leaving the existing framework in place — or it could be as broad as banning the use of race in admissions decisions nationwide.
A number of states, including California and Oklahoma have already banned the practice. California says that outlawing the use of race has caused its minority acceptance rates to plummet. Oklahoma says it hasn’t had much effect.
Even if the Supreme Court strikes down race-based admissions, not much is likely to change at UNC. It will just make the process even more mysterious.
4 things of note
Cabarrus N.C. House race still not over
With all precincts reporting, Republican Brian Echevarria found himself down just 434 votes behind the Democratic candidate in the race for state House District 73, Diamond Staton-Williams. But there are still 800-some absentee ballots to count, and provisional ballots have not all been reviewed, the Concord Independent-Tribune reports. Over the weekend, the race got even tighter.
Echevarria is not conceding the race, he wrote on Facebook. While it will be very difficult for him to make up that vote gap, it’s not impossible. Should the race flip, Republicans would gain a supermajority in the House.
Medicaid expansion talks punted to 2023
At varying times, both the state House and state Senate have appeared to be open to expanding Medicaid. Negotiations were underway this summer and into the fall. Now, both House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said in a press conference that there won’t be more discussions until 2023, WRAL reports.
Tax cuts, parental bill of rights in the works for next session
In that same press conference, Moore and Berger also gave some indications for what could be in the works for the 2023 long session. That includes a lower personal income tax rate, and a revisited parental bill of rights in education, Carolina Journal reports. Berger would not comment on what type of abortion legislation might be considered.
Harlan Boyles's 1994 warning is still relevant today
I just finished "Keeper of the Public Purse," former State Treasurer Harlan Boyles's brief financial history of North Carolina and treatise on efficient governance. It was published in 1994, just before Boyles launched his sixth and final campaign for office as a conservative Democrat.
Reading it today, the numbers in it are dated but the ideas certainly aren't. Boyles sounded the alarm about the out-of-control growth in public spending over the previous three decades and called for a reinvention of government in all areas, but particularly in education. He bemoaned the practice of pouring billions of more dollars into failed systems and demanded greater respect for taxpayer dollars.
Current State Treasurer Dale Folwell is a big fan, establishing an "Order of the Keeper of the Public Purse" award over the summer. The first honoree was former Rep. Allen McNeill, the Randolph County Republican who authored more than two dozen bills to strengthen the state retirement fund.
In his book, Boyles noted that only one State Treasurer of North Carolina has made it to the Executive Mansion. That was Jonathan Worth, a Unionist from the short-lived Conservative Party who served briefly as Treasurer in 1865 before being elected Governor between 1865 and 1868.
Folwell is reportedly considering a run for Governor in 2024, and I plan to examine his chances at a future date.
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