U.S. Department of Education’s Latest Guidance on Affirmative Action

By Zachary Keita, NAfME Federal Public Policy and Advocacy Communications Manager

On June 29, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that will have a huge impact on the diversity of the student population at colleges and universities, including those enrolled in music educator preparation programs. In Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College and Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. University of North Carolina et al. (collectively “SFFA”), the Supreme Court found that the consideration of race in college admissions was a violation of the 14th amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. This decision sharply limits a tool used by colleges and universities to increase diversity of culture among campus communities and diversity of thought within their classrooms.

Following the Supreme Court ruling, the Biden-Harris administration released a fact sheet outlining pathways for colleges and universities to include factors such as income status or other hardships in their admissions considerations and to continue supporting students from all backgrounds. On August 14, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) issued a Dear Colleague Letter and Q&A fact sheet, providing clarity on the Supreme Court’s decision and alternative pathways for fostering a culture of diversity on campus.

Most recently, ED released a comprehensive report detailing the remaining pathways for institutions of higher education (IHEs) to prioritize diversity on college campuses, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to end race-conscious admissions. The strategies offered include targeted recruitment programs, revising admissions strategies to advance diversity, and lowering the cost of college. In this blog we will discuss the available pathways listed by ED for maintaining diversity in college campuses.

U.S. Supreme Court building

This photo taken on Oct. 31, 2022 shows the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., the United States. The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on the use of affirmative action in college admissions on Monday. The lawsuits were brought forward by Students for Fair Admissions SFFA, a nonprofit membership group, against admissions policies at the University of North Carolina UNC and Harvard. (Photo by Liu Jie/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Target Recruitment Program

Since 2010 there has been a 6% decline in the number of high-school graduates who immediately enrolled into college. This trend in declining college enrollment is seen across racial groups, but is most pervasive amongst BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color), with 58% of Black and 57% of Hispanic students enrolling in college immediately following high school (compared to 64% of white students). When surveying based on income-level, the enrollment gap widens sharply, with 79% of high-income students enrolling in college following high school, compared to 48% of low-income students. To address these enrollment gaps in the wake of SFFA, ED advises IHEs to take part in targeted recruitment programs focused on fostering relationships with underserved students in K–12 schools.

To reach a diverse pool of student talent, institutions can:

  1. Establish, expand, and prioritize targeted outreach and K–12 pathways programs in communities with high proportions of low-income students and students of color
  2. Partner with K–12 school educators, including school counselors, college access groups and community-based organizations, to get clear information about higher education options in the hands of students and their families
  3. Admit more transfer students through partnerships with community colleges and other institutions that are more likely to enroll underserved students.

Admissions for Undergraduate and Graduate Programs

Following the Supreme Court’s decision in SFFA, IHEs will need to reassess their admissions practices to ensure they are in compliance with the current law. To support IHEs in maintaining a diverse student body, ED has offered several potential revisions to admissions practices that would help to increase diversity in admissions.

To increase diversity in admissions, institutions may consider:

  • Using effective holistic review to meaningfully take into account an applicant’s lived experience by expanding considerations of who can thrive at their institutions. Examples of factors include, but are not limited to:
    • Academic, such as high school grade-point average (GPA), class rank, rigor of high school coursework, and standardized test scores in the context of the high school and neighborhood of an applicant
    • Non-academic, such as a student’s activities that include but go beyond extracurricular activities (e.g., community service, leadership experience, after-school clubs), and include responsibilities such as caregiving and after-school work, as well as skills, personality, or interests
    • Additional race-neutral background information about a student, such as their family income and wealth, data concerning how the neighborhood where they grew up or went to school affected resources available to them and access to education, and what helps inform who they are today, including adversity they have faced and inspiration from lived experiences.
  • Ending practices such as legacy admissions that can negatively impact diversity, are unrelated to a prospective applicant’s individual merit or potential, that further benefit privileged students, and that reduce opportunities for students who have been foreclosed from such advantages
  • Exploring alternative admissions practices that can simplify the admission process for students
    • Direct Admissions: Programs that provide guaranteed admission for students graduating from in-state high schools if they meet minimum admission requirements set by colleges
    • Top Percent Plans: Programs that guarantee admission to the public universities in the state to the students at the top of their high school classes

Lowering the Cost of College and Providing Equitable Funding

The rising cost of college continues to be a substantial barrier to individuals interested in pursuing higher education. Even when accounting for inflation, the average tuition and fees of attending a four-year public college have risen from $4,040 in 1990 to $11,180 in 2020. Over the same time period, the average amount borrowed in federal loans has risen from $2,210 to $6,307. Students are borrowing more than ever to attend college, and subsequently struggling to repay these exorbitant loans, bringing into question the value of a college degree for many prospective candidates. To attract diverse candidates, ED offers potential strategies to increase affordability for underserved students, which include:

  • Investing in more need-based aid for students
    • Need-based programs, including no-loan initiatives and other grant funding for students that base eligibility or aid levels on the student’s demonstrated financial capability, should strive to eliminate or reduce student debt for low-income students
  • Implementing college promise programs
    • College promise programs provide financial aid, typically through a tuition-free guarantee to students within a specified state or locale.
  • Ensuring institutions have the resources needed to keep tuition low, provide sufficient financial aid, and giving students the support they need to complete their credentials
  • Ensuring transparency and predictability throughout the financial aid lifecycle, from recruitment to graduation

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s SFFA decision, colleges and universities will have to employ new admissions practices to ensure a diverse student body is maintained. NAfME will continue to update its members with the latest ED guidance on maintaining campus diversity and updating admissions practices. For more information on strategies to maintain campus diversity, read the full report from the U.S. Department of Education.

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April 2024 Teaching Music

Published Date

October 31, 2023


  • Advocacy
  • Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access (DEIA)
  • Federal Advocacy & Public Policy
  • Race


October 31, 2023. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)

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