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Perspective | College admissions and the power of the nudge

Higher education officials anxiously await U.S. Supreme Court decisions in cases centering on race-conscious admissions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Harvard University. Because college curriculum and entrance standards have ripple effects through elementary and secondary schools, this moment of watchful waiting calls for thinking ahead toward strengthening the guidance counseling of K-12 students, however the court rules.

Comments and questions by conservative justices, who hold a 6-3 majority, during October oral arguments have led to an expectation that the Supreme Court will strike down, or substantially constrict, university practices to bring about racial and ethnic diversity among enrolled students. In this weighty case, the court received 93 amicus briefs, 33 backing the challenge to affirmative action and 60 supporting the universities.

One of the university-supporting briefs was filed by 10 Southern governors. They urge the court to recognize the value of university-student diversity in developing state leaders representative of the full population. The governors also warn of potential harm to efforts to increase academic achievement in K-12 schools.

Challengers to current university admissions practices, the governors argue, “are not only attacking race consciousness in admissions to higher education; they also aim to eliminate opportunities in elementary, middle, and high school that would expand opportunities to earn admission to university. Quality education at one level makes quality education at the next level more accessible.”

The governors point out that educational attainment among white and minority Southerners still falls below the national level. They note that their states have instituted a variety of plans, such as NC Pre-K, that have the effect of addressing racial inequality.

“Many of these programs work by identifying a population of ‘at risk’ students and providing them additional educational resources,” says the governors’ brief. “The population of these ‘at risk’ students, in turn, is often disproportionately comprised of racial minorities … A rule that any consideration of race is unconstitutional would upset earlier precedent, potentially rendering invalid many programs aimed at improving racial inequality in education.”

Two current governors, Roy Cooper of North Carolina and John Bel Edwards of Louisiana, joined the brief group. So did eight former governors: Jim Hunt, Mike Easley, and Bev Perdue of North Carolina; Jim Hodges and Richard Riley of South Carolina; Roy Barnes of Georgia; Ray Mabus of Mississippi; and Terry McAuliffe of Virginia. All are Democrats.

Earlier this week, The New York Times published a look-ahead analysis of the consequences of the anticipated court ruling. Universities, it reported, “may need to rethink everything, including recruitment, scholarships, standardized testing and alumni preferences.”

The Times interviewed Angel B. Pérez, the chief executive of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, who said that “we will be missing an entire generation” as college-going among students of color decline for a while before hopefully rising again.

“This isn’t just something that colleges are grappling with,” Dr. Pérez said. “I think it will change the way high schools advise students.”

The Times, focused on implications for universities, did not elaborate on counseling for high schoolers. Still, it is important to recognize the potential potency of comprehensive guidance counseling in nudging students to pick and succeed in more challenging courses, and in nudging schools to have higher expectations for their students.

In North Carolina, as elsewhere, too many large high schools have too few counselors, who end up mostly as course schedulers, test administrators, and disciplinarians. An increase in the ranks of counselors would position them to serve more powerfully in working with students, teachers, and parents to nurture talent and to plan for education in community colleges and universities.

The impending Supreme Court ruling may indeed prove disruptive. But North Carolina’s future remains dependent on continuing efforts, in policymaking and school practices, to make progress in educating its young citizens in the multi-ethnic Generation Z.   

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory serves on the board of directors of EducationNC and is professor of the practice emeritus at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.