Catholic universities need a new kind of affirmative action—for students aligned with their mission
Since the Supreme Court curtailed race-conscious admissions last June, Catholic colleges and universities have been strategizing on how they can continue their longstanding commitment to diversity. Many plan to rely on a narrow window in the court’s decision, allowing a college to take into account any applicant’s essay that discusses “how race affected his or her life.” But as the court cautioned in its majority opinion, any consideration of race in the admissions process must be tied to an applicant’s “experiences as an individual,” showing “that student’s courage and determination” in overcoming discrimination or demonstrating “that student’s unique ability to contribute to the university” (emphasis in the original; see sidebar on the following page).
As Catholic colleges and universities adjust to a new legal landscape, they should ask themselves how applicants might contribute in particular to their university.
The sociologist Natasha Warikoo, a professor at Tufts University, saysthe answer to that question should depend on the purpose of the university. Observing that college admissions have always been about more than high school grades or other indicators of “merit,” Professor Warikoo argues that schools should also consider how the students they enroll might advance their respective missions.
Applicants who demonstrate the potential to advance a school’s mission present particular qualifications for admission, just as other students who excel in academics, theater or sports might.
Naturally, the missions of Catholic colleges and universities are tied to their religious values, and many such schools were founded to educate the children of Catholic immigrants for whom more selective schools were out of reach. But over time, Catholic educational institutions have expanded their missions. Their curricula and ministries have increasingly emphasized the church’s social teaching, which provides a theological framework for building a just society and promoting the common good.
In its Guide for Mission Reflection, the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities states that Jesuit schools should pursue “a preferential option for those who experience poverty and marginalization.” They should also “reconstruct relationships that have been damaged by racism” and “work to repair harms done.” For example, Georgetown University has embarked on a public and painful journey to reconcile with the descendants of 272 men, women and children whom its early leaders had kept in slavery and sold to save the school from financial ruin.
Other Catholic colleges and universities pursue missions that advance the church’s social teaching. Referencing Pope Francis’ statement that “the value of our educational practices will be measured not simply by the results of standardized tests, but by the ability to affect the heart of society and to help give birth to a new culture,” DePaul University says that it pursues “thought leadership in addressing pressing issues of social justice.”
Among the myriad ways that students can “contribute to the university” is by working to advance their school’s social mission. This includes, as Professor Warikoo suggests, contributing to that mission even afterthey graduate. Putting it another way, Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, the Jesuit superior general, once observed, “The real measure of our Jesuit universities lies in who our students become.”
In this respect, students who after graduation “engage in the work of social justice” in “the Catholic social tradition” as members of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps advance their school’s mission. So do students who go on to professions in which they alleviate racial disparities in housing, education or the criminal justice system. Through these pursuits and community volunteer involvement, students can become, in the words of the Jesuit Father General Pedro Arrupe, “agents of change in society; not merely resisting unjust structures and arrangements, but actively undertaking to reform them.”
Applicants who demonstrate the potential to advance a school’s mission in this way present particular qualifications for admission, just as other students who excel in academics, theater or sports might. Considering such qualifications in the admissions process is logical, fair and in accord with language in the Supreme Court decisionthat permits schools to “define their missions as they see fit.”
Considering such qualifications may also foster diversity on campus. That has been the experience of medical schools with a mission to educate doctors who will serve those most in need. To overcome persistent disparities in access to medical care, these schools identify applicants for admission who are most likely to practice medicine in rural, tribal and underserved urban communities.
Considering such qualifications may also foster diversity on campus. That has been the experience of medical schools with a mission to educate doctors who will serve those most in need.
They accomplish this by focusing not just on applicants’ grades and board scores but also on their socioeconomic background and experience. Studies show, for example, that students from rural settings are much more likely to practice medicine in communities that resemble where they grew up. Similarly, students who were raised in underserved urban communities, have a history of community engagement or show a desire to practice where the need is greatest may be more likely to contribute to a medical school’s social mission.
Because they weigh the potential for such contributions in the admissions process, state medical schools in California with a mission to bring health care to underserved communities are notably among the most racially diverse in the country. This is notwithstanding state laws that for decades have banned affirmative action in higher education.
Catholic colleges and universities, too, may foster greater diversity by giving preference to applicants likely to advance their social missions.
Such applicants may include, for example, the predominantly Latino and African American graduates of the 39 Cristo Rey Network schools across the country. Ninety-eight percent of the nearly 12,500 students enrolled in these Catholic, college preparatory high schools identify as students of color, all are from low-income households, and the majority are the first in their families to attend college.
Likewise, high school students in Fordham University’s Corporate Communications High School Pipeline Program may advance the school’s Jesuit mission after they complete their education. In collaboration with area Catholic (and public) schools, the program offers a path for immigrant and first-generation high school students to Fordham’s Gabelli School of Business.
Through their personal experiences with poverty, racial injustice, and the enforcement of immigration laws, as well as their interest in reforming unjust structures, participants in these college pathway programs may distinguish themselves from other applicants in a way that meets the new federal guidelines on college admissions following the Supreme Court decision.
Naturally, it is up to each Catholic college and university to decide its own mission. But if schools choose to bring Catholic social justice principles to the fore, they have a path to bring more historically underrepresented students of color into their future classes.
The author has served as a member of the board of directors of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School–Twin Cities and has contributed to diversity pipeline initiatives in the legal profession.