Elite Colleges Ask Applicants About Kermit the Frog and Other ‘Optional’ Questions on Diversity in What Could Be an End Run Around Supreme Court Ruling Barring Racial Preferences

Dartmouth writes that Kermit the Frog struggled with his green skin and asks applicants: ‘How has difference been a part of your life, and how have you embraced it as part of your identity and outlook?’

Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Capital Concerts
Kermit the Frog performs for 'A Capitol Fourth' at Washington D.C. on July 4, 2021. Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Capital Concerts

After the Supreme Court’s ruling barring race-based admissions, some universities have added new essay questions asking students to write about “diversity.” This could give admissions officers a tool to evaluate applicants without overtly making decisions based on race. 

In many cases, the questions are “optional” but open the door for applicants to discuss their race or show how they can further the college’s desire for a “diverse” student body.

A former admissions officer for Columbia University, Mary Banks, who now has a private admissions consultancy, Quad Education, says she has “not shifted” her strategy, as she expects colleges will continue to find ways to give preference to applicants who advance their diversity goals.

“I don’t think we’re going to have the Supreme Court looking at essays written by college students that help them get in, but I don’t know that,” she tells the Sun. “The verdict is out, and I think we’re going to continue to see equity and inclusion across college admissions just the way it always has been.”

The president of Students for Fair Admissions, Edward Blum, who successfully challenged racial preferences before the high court, tells the Sun that it is “too early to tell” if colleges are looking for ways to get around the Supreme Court’s ruling, and that we’ll know more as colleges roll out their new applications, which could illustrate their responses to the new rules.  

“School by school will be doing this uniquely,” he said, later adding that “the world of higher education is still digesting what the opinion compels. … We know that they have said that they are not going to be using race going forward, but what will they be using?”

The opinion of the court in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard specified that “universities may not simply establish through application essays or other means the regime we hold unlawful today,” specifically barring colleges from using essays to screen for race. 

Yet the opening for proponents of affirmative action comes from a single line in Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion: “Nothing prohibits universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected the applicant’s life, so long as that discussion is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability that the particular applicant can contribute to the university.” 

The common application, a portal allowing for a more streamlined application process, still has a “demographics” section for all applicants that asks for race, but colleges will presumably no longer be able to employ that information when making admissions decisions. 

Perhaps the school under the most scrutiny is the defendant in the affirmative action case, Harvard University, which wrote in an email to affiliates that, while it would comply with the ruling, it affirmed its dependence “upon a community comprising people of many backgrounds, perspectives, and lived experiences.” 

Harvard previously included an optional essay question relating to diversity, enabling students to “write about distinctive aspects of your background, personal development or the intellectual interests you might bring to your Harvard classmates,” but the prompt was one of a handful of supplemental questions. 

This year, Harvard’s application includes a new required essay of up to 200 words. “Harvard has long recognized the importance of enrolling a diverse student body. How will the life experiences that shape who you are today enable you to contribute to Harvard?” the application asks. 

Other elite schools have inserted seemingly similar questions into their applications. Dartmouth, which has a set of elective prompts that change every year, also has a new question about skin color that artfully avoids directly discussing black, brown, or white skin: “‘It’s not easy being green…’ was the frequent refrain of Kermit the Frog. How has difference been a part of your life, and how have you embraced it as part of your identity and outlook?” 

Stanford University, which has one of the lowest acceptance rates in the country, replaced its third short essay question asking applicants to “tell us about something that is meaningful to you,” and now asks prospective students to “describe what aspects of your life experiences, interests and character would help you make a distinctive contribution.” 

At the graduate level, a new Columbia Law School application requirement earned the ire of critics when it announced on its website that all applicants would be required to submit a 90-second video (presumably showing their skin color) to “provide additional insights into their personal strengths,” according to screenshots obtained by the Washington Free Beacon. 

Once the Beacon inquired about the prompt, the university responded that videos would “not be required as part of the Fall 2024 J.D. application,” and, as the Beacon reports, the university removed the prompt from its website.

Not all top universities have adjusted their processes, though: The University of Chicago, a school that places a heavy emphasis on its unusual and creative supplemental application essays, did not add any other requirement for applicants, while Vanderbilt University also merely retained its two options for its “community engagement” short answer essays. 

A private college advisor for Solomons Admissions Consulting, Tamy-Fée Meneide, tells the Sun she now encourages students to “talk about how they give back to the community to which they belong” in their applications, because she believes colleges are “still looking for students who bring a cultural lens.” She views the “very vague” language of the new prompts as “another way to talk about how they give back to the community to which they belong.” 

A venture capital investor and advisor for Quad Education, Grace Dhanraj, who works with Mary Banks, says she believes any mention of race will be “much more holistic on your entire application package, and not just your essay, and not just what you tick off in the racial box.” Ms. Dhanraj adds that her approach in advising students for graduate school will be “very similar,” with any affirmative action benefits now “one less piece of the pie.” 

Mr. Blum sent a letter in July to 150 universities, requesting that they create “new admissions guidelines that make clear race is not to be a factor in the admission or denial of admission to any applicants” and provide “clear instructions that essay answers, personal statements, or other parts of an application cannot be used to ascertain or provide a benefit based on the applicant’s race.” 

He tells the Sun that his organization is waiting to see what schools do to incorporate the ruling into their admissions processes and whether their adjustments are in line with the court’s opinion.

“There very well could be a prompt requirement to answer an essay question that we believe exceeds the bright line,” he says. “There may be an essay prompt that comports with it. We just don’t know yet.”

The New York Sun

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