In January, the New York Times interviewed several high school seniors, asking them about the college-application process since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down affirmative action last June. All but one of the students told the Times that under the advice of their high school counselors, they had, following the ruling, rewritten their college application essays to highlight their race or ethnicity.

The Times described one Hispanic student who said that she had originally written her essay about a death in her family, but “reshaped it around a Spanish book she read as a way to connect to her Dominican heritage” after the ruling. Another student had “wanted to leave his Indigenous background out of his essay,” but later “reworked it to focus on an heirloom necklace that reminded him of his home on the Navajo Reservation.” The most dramatic change came courtesy of an interviewee who identified as both black and Asian: “The first draft of Jyel Hollingsworth’s essay explored her love for chess. The final focused on the prejudice between her Korean and black American families and the financial hardships she overcame.”

Many high school counselors and college admissions officers believe that while the Court struck down Harvard and the University of North Carolina’s race-conscious admissions policies, it did not foreclose the consideration of race in college admissions altogether. They point specifically to the majority’s statement that “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.” Advocates of colorblindness disagree with those officials’ interpretation, noting that the majority also warned that “universities may not simply establish through application essays or other means the regime we hold unlawful today.”

Did the Supreme Court, in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard (SFFA), remove race and ethnicity from college admissions entirely? Americans are unlikely to get a clear answer until the justices take up another case involving racial preferences. In the interim, proponents of colorblindness ought to ask something else: Who is encouraging underrepresented minorities—namely, black and Hispanic students—to frame their college-application essays around their racial and ethnic identities?

One culprit is the College Board, a nonprofit with more than 6,000 collegiate, high school, and other institutional members, best known for its Scholastic Aptitude Test and Advanced Placement exams. It was founded as the College Entrance Examination Board in 1900 to create and administer a single standardized test for college admissions in the U.S. The SAT’s goal was to provide students, regardless of race, religion, or socioeconomic status, with a chance to obtain higher education. Today, the College Board boasts on its website that it “pioneered programs like the SAT[] and AP[] to expand opportunities for students and help them develop the skills they need.”

For the past 20 years, though, the organization behind the SAT and AP has quietly advocated for racial preferences. Indeed, one week after the SFFA decision, the College Board, alongside top education consulting firm EducationCounsel, began advising high school counselors and college admissions officers on how to help black and Hispanic students frame their application essays around their race or ethnicity.

The College Board’s foray into racialism began in 2004. In response to 2003’s Grutter v. Bollinger, in which the Supreme Court held that colleges could consider race in admissions given institutions’ “compelling interest” in diversity, the organization co-founded the Access and Diversity Collaborative. The ADC, per the College Board, is a group of education professionals, professional organizations, and colleges and universities “dedicated to upholding the principles of equitable access to higher education and promoting diversity on campus.” Today, the ADC has 95 members, including Dartmouth, Columbia, Princeton, the Association of American Medical Colleges, and the National Association of College Admission Counseling.

The ADC and College Board have supported racial preferences in three ways: they’ve filed amicus briefs in affirmative action cases, provided admissions officers with blueprints on how to increase the number of black and Hispanic students at their institutions, and, since SFFA, have held an information session on how such students can mention race in their college application essays. These combined efforts suggest that the groups believe applicants’ skin color is more valuable than their academic achievements.

First, consider the amicus brief that the College Board filed in 2016’s Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, a case in which the Supreme Court evaluated the university’s affirmative action program. In its brief, the College Board argued that “the predictive value of the SAT for admissions purposes does not lead to the conclusion that SAT scores should be the sole (or even the principal) factor in judging a student’s ability to succeed at a particular institution.” Likewise, in its brief in SFFA, the organization wrote, “Any hint that standardized test scores on their own are the equivalent of ‘merit’ are unfounded,” and “Eliminating consideration of an applicant’s unique lived experience and perspective associated with their race and ethnicity would unfairly treat applicants for whom that is a critical part of their life story.”

Second, in 2019, the College Board published a “playbook” on how admissions officers can use apparently race-neutral strategies to boost the number of black and Hispanic students at their respective colleges and universities, such as minimizing the role of standardized tests in the application process. Given racial disparities in SAT performance, the document calls on institutions to acknowledge the exam’s “inherent limitations,” and counsels them to “never us[e] a standardized test as a sole criterion for high-stakes purposes like admission and aid, considering test scores in light of other contextual factors associated with an applicant’s background and experience.”

Finally, since June, the ADC and the College Board have advised high school counselors and college-admissions officers on how black and Hispanic students can frame their application essays around their racial and ethnic identities. For example, the College Board shared “preliminary guidance” from EducationCounsel on its website, stating: “The practice of considering an applicant’s background, experiences, and perspectives associated with race or ethnicity in admissions is permissible, and should shape the design of application essay questions.”

Their efforts to maintain race-conscious admissions after SFFA didn’t end there. The ADC has also held information sessions for high school counselors and college admissions officers. At a November 2023 session, panelists urged counselors not to discourage minority students from talking about race-related experiences in their college essays. Darryl Tiggle, Director of College Counseling at the Friends School in Baltimore, Maryland (where tuition begins at $24,400 for prekindergarten and goes up to $38,000 for grades 9–12), seemed to suggest that students could wink and nod at their racial identity without explicitly mentioning it and used the following story as an example: 

“As melodic harmonies of gospel music and the squelching wet sponge against the countertops weave their way into my drowsy consciousness, I know it’s a signal from my mother that it’s time to embark on a sacred mission: cleaning my room.”

Based on that story, Tiggle continued, “We knew something about her identity right away but she’s not going to be talking about that journey, but she’s sort of giving you some context about her life.”

At the same information session, Stephanie DuPaul, the vice president of enrollment management at the University of Richmond, shared a telling hypothetical:

Two applicants apply. They’re both lacrosse players. . . . One of them writes his essay about being a lacrosse player and blowing his knee . . . That applicant happens to be African American. The second applicant also is [an] African American lacrosse player, and he writes about blowing his knee . . . but he also writes about . . . how it’s been an interesting experience for him to be a student of color in a majority-white sport, and how he’s occasionally experienced some hurdles others might not have.

Dupaul suggested that the second essay was superior to the first.

The College Board’s abandoning merit for racialism is all too familiar. The ACLU, the American Medical Association, and many other storied organizations have, in recent decades, also replaced their longstanding missions with progressive orthodoxy. That doesn’t make the College Board’s degradation any less unfortunate—especially for black and Hispanic students, who, like their white and Asian peers, deserve to be judged on their academic prowess, not their race or ethnicity.

Justice Clarence Thomas, in his dissent in Grutter, explained that one reason he rejects racial preferences is that he believes “blacks can achieve in every avenue of American life without the meddling of university administrators.” Clearly, the College Board and its affiliates do not share that belief.

Photo: Ridofranz/iStock/Getty Images Plus


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