Affirmative Action and International Education

Last fall (October 2022), the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) heard arguments related to two cases, Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina, that would determine if institutions of higher education can use race as a factor in admissions. This month, SCOTUS will announce their ruling on the matter. Many expect that SCOTUS will eliminate or curtail the use of race as a factor in college admissions.

For the international education sector, the direct impact of eliminating affirmative action policies may not seem clear. However, such a ban can affect education abroad, international student recruitment, and efforts to recruit and retain racially diverse staff and faculty to support international education. While there are areas of concern, there may also be a number of opportunities to improve practices, policies, and processes to ensure access to and participation in international education programming is accessible and inclusive.

Areas of Concern

Admitting Students from Diverse Backgrounds May Get Harder

A national ban on race-conscious admissions (where race/ethnicity is included as a factor in admission decisions) would likely have immediate and lasting effects across institutions of higher education in the United States. However, there is precedence for eliminating such admissions policies and the negative impact on enrollment is still being felt nearly 20 years later. In nine states - Arizona, California, Florida, Idaho, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Washington - race-conscious admissions have already been eliminated. In most of these states, public institutions saw immediate drops in enrollment of racially minoritized students after the policies were implemented. The decreased enrollment rates were most acute at selective flagship public universities. In some cases enrollment levels for racially minoritized student populations still have not recovered.

Lower enrollment rates for racially minoritized students will likely, in turn, reduce the pool of prospective students from such backgrounds applying to and ultimately participating in education abroad programming. Many institutions and global learning organizations have worked diligently over the last two decades to increase the representation of students engaged in international opportunities, and with a less diverse student population these efforts may be curtailed. Additionally, curtailing affirmative action has the potential to limit targeted scholarship and other funding schemes that take race into consideration. Based on Diversity Abroad's campus visit data from 2019-2020, 90% of students of color identify funding as the key barrier to participating in study abroad and other global learning experiences. It can be expected that curtailing the ability for higher education institutions to use race as a factor with targeted scholarship will negatively impact education abroad participation among students of color.

While often viewed through the lens of domestic diversity, the absence of affirmative action could discourage international students from choosing the United States as their study destination. Students and their families may equate a lack of commitment to diversity and inclusivity to U.S. campuses being less welcoming of students from diverse racial or religious backgrounds. This could have an outsized impact on students from the global south, thus potentially reducing the diversity of international students at a time when campuses are eager to diversify the countries where international students originate from. In a similar vein, with fewer domestic students of color on campus, international students will have fewer opportunities to be exposed to the diverse communities and experiences that make the United States a rich cultural destination.

Advancements in Developing Inclusive Campus Climates May Slow

A campus student population that is more homogeneous (e.g., racially, ethnically, financially) can have a chilling effect on institutional efforts to develop more inclusive social and academic climates on campus. Lower enrollments of racially minoritized students could make outreach to diverse student applicants and retaining current student populations more difficult. If students do not see representation on campus, they may be less inclined to apply in the first place. Less inclusive campus climates have been shown to negatively affect student retention and success as well as retention of faculty of color, which will have a downstream effect not only on efforts to diversify education abroad participants but also on international students’ sense of belonging on campus.

Students with visible racially minoritized identities, including international students, may also face increased scrutiny and tokenism on campus. If institutions do not currently have support systems in place to counter these issues, students from racially minoritized backgrounds could find it more difficult to find community on campus, increasing feelings of isolation. For international students who do not have a clear understanding of how social identities are conceptualized in the United States, this will be particularly jarring. For racially minoritized students on education abroad programs, where students of color remain underrepresented, isolation and tokenism for some will become more acute.

Hiring Diverse Faculty and Staff May Get Harder

In addition to admissions, hiring more diverse faculty and staff is likely to be a challenge. While the focus often lands on institutional hiring and tenure policies, which can be problematic, faculty and staff may also make decisions about where they apply to work. Faculty and staff from diverse backgrounds may make career decisions based on an institution's expressed commitment to diversity and belonging, which will make it difficult to attract faculty and staff of color in the hiring process.

For international education this could mean a smaller pool of faculty of color who are positioned to teach or lead education abroad programs or global learning opportunities. While faculty representation in and of itself is an important goal, there is evidence (here and here) to suggest that faculty from racially diverse backgrounds serve as role models for students of color, offer mentorship to minoritized students, and are inclined to include more diverse scholarship and research in their courses. This is important for all areas of international education including education abroad, international students in the classroom, and global learning opportunities at home.

Selective Schools will Feel an Outsized Impact

In January 2023 during Diversity Abroad's Think Forward Summit fireside discussion on Diversifying Global Education in a Time of Affirmative Action Bans, Dr. Natasha Warikoo reminded attendees that institutions with highly selective admissions processes (e.g., Ivy League institutions, flagship state universities) will feel the outsized effect of removing race as a factor for admissions. Many selective institutions also happen to be the institutions that send the most students abroad and receive the most international students. Thus, at a macro level, international opportunities are not distributed evenly across the higher education experience. Open access, regional campuses and other colleges and universities that tend to serve more diverse student populations are too often the institutions that are limited in their ability to offer as many opportunities for students to engage in international opportunities.

Opportunities for Progress

While the above analysis of the impact of an affirmative action ban on international education appears grim, there are opportunities to think creatively about how to advance racial equity in education even in the face of such complex challenges.

Collaborating Across Campus Units More Intentionally

Often an outsized burden of developing more inclusive campus environments falls on the office or unit with diversity in its title. While diversity and multicultural offices serve as a clearinghouse or central repository of resources and programming for minoritized populations, building an inclusive campus climate is everyone’s responsibility. With state-level efforts to reduce or eliminate funding for such efforts and offices, it is more important than ever that international and global offices partner across campus units/departments to advance inclusive practices. Education abroad, for example, has the potential to advance racial equity and enhance student success and retention, particularly for historically marginalized student populations. How can international educators connect education abroad more effectively to efforts to attract and retain diverse students looking to attend their institutions?

Reviewing Admissions and Hiring Processes for Bias

Affirmative action policies were initially designed to counteract bias in hiring and application processes. In the absence of a formal mandate, individual offices and global learning organizations can use this as an opportunity to critically assess the application process (to education abroad programs) and hiring processes to address potential biases and ensure fairness throughout the experience. By implementing comprehensive strategies, such as regular bias training for staff members involved in admissions and hiring, evaluating application materials through an inclusive lens, and utilizing inclusive review techniques, offices and organizations can actively mitigate bias.

Importantly, this is yet another opportunity to engage students. Campus units and global learning organizations can create opportunities for diverse students to provide input on the application process and recruitment efforts to include student perceptions of accessibility and inclusivity. By undertaking these proactive measures, offices and organizations ensure that students feedback is taken into account for critical stages of their engagement with the office/organization.

Reaching Students Across Institutional Types

The institutions that are likely to be the least affected by a ban on race-conscious admissions are also the ones that have the greatest potential to increase access to international programming. Global learning organizations, philanthropic and grant-making institutions, and government entities should prioritize efforts to partner with two-year and regional public institutions to build programs that are accessible to and affordable for a wider range of students. There are unique opportunities for more selective schools to develop partnerships with two-year and regional public institutions such as co-sponsored faculty-led programs and cross-training and research opportunities for faculty at both institutions (e.g., CIBE model). In order to increase participation of all students in global learning opportunities and improve access to such programming to a more diverse student population, institutional partnerships will play a critical role.

Beyond the Affirmative Action Ruling

Whether SCOTUS rules to limit race-conscious admissions or not, international education and global learning practitioners should seek out creative ways to enhance access, diversity, and belonging in international programming. In doing so, our sector will be part of the solution for advancing racial equity in higher education. Diversity Abroad is committed to providing resources, professional development opportunities, and perspectives that can support international education practitioners and leaders as they consider how these ideas might translate to their own campuses or organizations.


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