The End of Affirmative Action: What It Means For MBA Admissions by: Judith Silverman Hodara, Fortuna Admissions on July 20, 2023 | 7,215 Views July 20, 2023 Copy Link Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Email Share on LinkedIn Share on WhatsApp Share on Reddit As business schools were preparing to release their applications for 2023–24, they were also expecting a potentially seismic ruling from the US Supreme Court. And indeed, on June 29, the court ruled that consideration of race in college admissions was unlawful, effectively ending Affirmative Action. But Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority, clarified, “Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise. Stories of how an applicant’s identity is “concretely tied” to a “quality of character or unique ability” that the applicant can bring to the school are fair game, the court ruled. This creates an “essay loophole,” says Caroline Diarte Edwards, Fortuna Admissions co-founder and director. The majority opinion explicitly noted that universities can take race into account if it is relevant to the candidate’s unique life experience, and essays are where applicants can share that story. In any case, candidates from underrepresented groups should not be discouraged about their chances of admission, says Diarte Edwards. Business schools across the country responded to the ruling with strong statements affirming their commitment to diversity and inclusion, and schools will be working hard to attract a mix of students to provide a rich and diverse learning experience. Candidates from diverse backgrounds should use essays and other elements of their application to tell a clear story about how their life experiences fuel their career goals and will make them a powerful contributor to the class. “We tell our clients that admissions committees really want to know who you are because they evaluate candidates holistically, in ways that look far beyond GMAT scores or any checkbox —and now they will be digging deeper than ever to understand your authentic story,” says Diarte Edwards. How Schools Are Responding Following the ruling, Harvard Business School eliminated an optional question used last year that asked, “We understand that your racial, ethnic, and cultural background may not be fully captured by the above options. Please feel free to use the space below to share more about your racial, ethnicity, or cultural identity.” Phrased this way, the question could be seen as a stand-in for a checkbox where applicants report their racial and ethnic identity. Since Harvard was one of the respondents in the case of undergraduate admissions, HBS is understandably cautious about such questions. “However, candidates should keep in mind that despite taking out this question, the school is still committed to building a diverse classroom and candidates should feel free to talk about relevant aspects of their background in their essay and interview,” says Diarte Edwards. Counter to the direction of HBS, a number of schools have just introduced subtle but telling changes to their essay questions that invite candidates to share stories about their background. In revised essays, Kellogg, Tuck, and others are asking candidates to tell the admissions committee more about their background and how their experiences have shaped their identity and character. For example, Kellogg updated a more general essay about values to a more pointed question: “At Kellogg, our values are based on research that concludes that organizations comprised of leaders with varied backgrounds and perspectives outperform homogeneous ones. How do you believe your personal and professional experiences to date will help to enrich the Kellogg community?” Yale now offers a choice of three essay prompts, including “Describe the community that has been most meaningful to you.” Tuck revised its essay prompt, “Tell us who you are,” to add, “How have your values and experiences shaped your identity and character?” Other schools, like Duke’s Fuqua, are leaving their essays the same but adding an optional essay where applicants can share more about their personal stories. Fuqua invites applicants to share any “unique lived experience may now use this section of the application to help our Admissions team understand how that background has influenced their life, education, or career.” “Adapting essay prompts to ask specifically about applicants’ formative experiences with respect to race feels like schools are leaning into Chief Justice Roberts’ language in the majority opinion that allows consideration of these stories,” says Scott Brownlee, a Fortuna expert coach and former senior admissions counselor at Wharton and MBA career coach at UT Austin. “This tweak, plus test-optional policies, could have some positive results long-term that chip away at the inequities in a far-from-level playing field.” While some MBA programs quickly released their applications with modified essays, there is still considerable discussion underway about exactly what is allowed. Brittany Maschal, a Fortuna coach and former member of admissions teams at Wharton, Princeton, and Johns Hopkins, says one possible downside of the ruling is that many applicants may feel pressed to focus on diversity in their essays, and with limited space, other issues important to their candidacy may be pushed out or overshadowed. Uncertainty Abounds Fortuna coaches recently gathered for a discussion about how the ruling would affect candidates. The consensus? MBA programs are still figuring it out, and face considerable uncertainty. Schools have fervently restated their commitment to diversity — but how they will achieve this in the face of new and daunting limitations remains vague. “Until the decision came out, schools’ legal counsel didn’t know how they should advise admissions teams,” says Peter Johnson, Fortuna director and former assistant dean of the full-time MBA Program and Admissions at Berkeley Haas. “Some are advising schools that they should hide racial and ethnic information from the admissions committee,” Johnson said. Schools will continue to collect this data on application forms to meet federal requirements, but they will need to decide whether to leave it on the application and mask it from admissions file readers, or figure out a way to collect this data separately or after admission to avoid the appearance that this data is being used in the decision-making process. Johnson joined Haas the year after California’s ban on consideration of race in admissions took effect, so he has experienced the struggle of trying to adapt admissions protocols to fit new rules while attracting a diverse class. California’s history suggests that conservative groups will shift their focus beyond admissions, mounting legal attacks against programs and institutions that use race in making decisions about who gets contracts, jobs, scholarships, and awards. This is already occurring, he says. What We May See From a recent discussion of the ruling’s impact on a Business Casual podcast, Diarte Edwards shares additional thoughts and reactions: Schools may lean more heavily on seeking first-generation students and students from low-income backgrounds to help support diversity efforts — although opponents are expected to challenge that as well. However, while income diversity is also important, it may not achieve racial and ethnic diversity. There are about three times more poor white people than poor black people in the US, even though a higher percentage of the black population is poor. Schools will now have to spend a great deal more money on outreach to diverse candidates. The Economist estimates that the University of California system has spent $500 million on outreach since the state banned affirmative action —and still hasn’t reached diversity targets, at least in its most selective universities. Despite their high quality, top schools may find minority candidates are unwilling to attend a school where they won’t find a community and a support system. Schools that cannot attract a critical mass of a particular group may find themselves facing a self-perpetuating cycle. The court left an explicit carveout for military colleges — an interesting exception that seems to acknowledge that diversity is vital in military leadership. It is not clear why that wouldn’t be equally valid for other educational, government, and corporate institutions. “Why is my race only of value if I were in direct service to the United States military, but not if I wanted to pursue a degree that would allow me to become a Supreme Court Justice, CEO, or Surgeon General?” asks Alterrell Mills, a Fortuna expert coach who earned his bachelor’s and MBA degrees at Harvard and served as co-president of the African American Student Union at HBS. It seems likely that test-optional policies will be extended, particularly at the undergrad level, but potentially also at the graduate level as well, as this will give schools the flexibility to bring in more diverse candidates without the concern that their low test scores will be used against the school in future litigation. From what we have observed, business schools will be exploring every avenue they have to ensure that they attract and enroll an inclusive class that offers everyone broad learning experiences. And candidates should keep in mind that schools will be scrutinizing your application more deeply than ever to understand the breadth and depth of your experiences and how this will enable you to contribute to the business school classroom and community. Judith Silverman Hodara is a Director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former Wharton head of Admissions. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at a top MBA program, sign up for a free consultation. Comments or questions about this article? Email us.