Many Universities Are Abandoning Race-Conscious Scholarships Worth Millions

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel / Washington Post
Many Universities Are Abandoning Race-Conscious Scholarships Worth Millions Duke University's West Campus. (photo: Bill Snead/Duke University)

In the year since the Supreme Court struck down race-conscious admissions, colleges have walked away from scholarships with racial criteria.

Duke University recently discontinued a 45-year-old scholarship that covered tuition, currently about $66,000 a year, and housing costs of some Black undergraduate students.

The University of Iowa has changed the selection criteria for its Advantage Iowa Award, which dispenses more than $9 million a year in financial help to first-year students from historically underrepresented groups. White students, who previously weren’t eligible, can now apply.

Across the four-campus University of Missouri system, officials are changing the eligibility rules for $17.2 million in institutional and donor-funded scholarships earmarked for students from certain racial or ethnic groups. Race will no longer be considered in scholarship applications.

In the year since the Supreme Court ruled colleges could no longer consider an applicant’s race as a factor in admissions, a growing number of schools have also applied the principles underlying the ruling to financial aid. Nearly 50 colleges and universities, mostly public institutions, have paused, ended or reconfigured hundreds of race-conscious scholarships worth millions of dollars to comply with the ruling, according to a Washington Post tally. The awards identified are worth at least $45 million, but probably amount to much more, The Post found.

Republican state leaders and conservative activists say race-conscious scholarships and grants disadvantage White students in the same ways as race-conscious admissions policies. The court’s ruling, which overturned the use of race in college admissions, didn’t mention financial aid, but conservatives say universities should interpret it broadly to eliminate any race-based policies.

“The court gave us such a clear window into how it was thinking about race,” said Kenji Yoshino, a law professor at New York University School of Law. “There isn’t really a legal foot to stand on to fight for these scholarships.”

Higher education experts worry that if colleges and universities continue to walk away from race-conscious scholarships, it could have a more profound impact on diversity in higher education than ending affirmative action in admissions. While most selective schools have used race-conscious admissions policies to achieve diversity, far more colleges and universities rely on offering students of color financial help.

Cost is a key barrier for many of these students, financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz said. Yet, federal data shows that Black and Hispanic students are less likely to receive college scholarships than White students, he said.

The impact of the court’s decision is “multifold,” said C.J. Powell, director of advocacy for the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Federal Pell Grants, which have helped millions of low-to-moderate-income students attend college, have not kept up with the rising cost of tuition and merit-based aid tends to benefit wealthy and White students, Powell said.

“There are going to be fewer avenues for students of color to reliably afford higher education” if the trend continues, he said.

An emerging trend

Republican state lawmakers have been a driving force behind the retreat from race-conscious scholarships.

In Wisconsin, the Republican-controlled assembly passed legislation in November to ban state colleges and universities from considering race in awarding state financial aid. The measure didn’t pass the Senate, but university officials began altering their programs anyway.

The University of Wisconsin system is removing race as a factor in more than 160 scholarships, grants, fellowships, study abroad and hiring programs, according to the system’s director of media relations, Mark Pitsch. Individual universities, he said, are also discussing scholarship criteria with donors who funded specific awards to ensure they comply with the court’s ruling.

In January, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost (R) warned colleges that considering race in financial aid is just as unconstitutional as using it in admissions. Some colleges in the state immediately began reviewing their institutional scholarships and pausing some awards while they worked with donors to change their terms.

University officials say they are trying to navigate mandates from state leaders without alienating donors, some of whom have resisted any changes to the terms of their contributions.

“I’m deeply disappointed,” said Andrew Alexander, who funds an annual scholarship for underrepresented student journalists at Ohio University, his alma mater. “I feel an obligation to try to help young people at a university that helped me. And I think the university is trying to come up with a satisfactory solution.”

Alexander’s scholarship, which provides selected students about $1,500 a year, is among 130 gift agreements under evaluation at the university. The awards represent less than 1 percent of the $400 million in scholarships that Ohio University provides a year, which Alexander said are still essential.

“It’s a modest scholarship, but … for some students, $1,500 can be the difference that enables them to pursue a college degree or to drop out,” Alexander, a former ombudsman of The Washington Post, said of his scholarship. Hopefully, it can be reconfigured to still meet the goal of achieving diversity in newsrooms, he said.

Ohio University said in a statement it was reviewing its selection criteria on various scholarships to comply with the court’s ruling.

Hours after the justices issued their opinion last year, Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey (R) told universities to stop using race-based standards to make decisions about “admissions, scholarships, programs, and employment.”

In response, the University of Missouri system changed the terms of most endowed scholarships. But the system has spent the past year negotiating with donors whose scholarships don’t allow such changes without their permission, said Christian Basi, director of public affairs for the Missouri system.

System leaders have been unable to reach some donors or hit an impasse with others who object to the change, Basi said. With 53 holdouts remaining, the University of Missouri system petitioned state court in May for the authority to scrub the racial criteria in those contracts without the donors’ consent.

“We value all of our donors very much, and their contributions help relieve students and families of financial stress are very much appreciated,” Basi said. “We have been working hard to engage with donors and continue conversations wherever we can, while also complying with state and federal law.”

The impasse has put the system at odds with some benefactors, including Mary Willis and Cynthia Willis-Esqueda, sisters who helped create the Frank Neal Willis Jr. Minority Scholarship Fund at the University of Missouri at Kansas City in 2004.

The grant, which provides $500 awards to dozens of Black, Hispanic and Native students annually, honors their father’s tenure as a professor at UMKC and legacy as a civil rights activist in Kansas City, the sisters said.

“We are very angry that anybody would dare to say that we can’t decide where our little bit of inheritance goes. It’s just unbelievable,” said Willis, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Missouri State University. “We don’t have much to give, but we’re all still committed to our community being an equal and fair one.”

The family is considering taking legal action to stop the system from making the change without their permission, Willis said.

Basi declined to comment on the family’s concerns.

Leveling the playing field

Conservative activists have seized on the shifting legal landscape to advance longstanding efforts to dismantle race-based policies in higher education.

In 2021, the Wisconsin Institute for Law … Liberty sued the Wisconsin Higher Educational Aids Board over the use of minority scholarships. The case was dismissed in 2022. The conservative group is now appealing the decision.

“Before the [Supreme Court] decision, diversity could sometimes justify race-conscious measures,” said Daniel Lennington, a lawyer for the Wisconsin Institute for Law … Liberty (WILL). “After the decision, diversity can never justify race-conscious measures.”

The Equal Protection Project, led by Cornell University clinical law professor William Jacobson, has filed 28 complaints against race-based scholarships with the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights over the past year. The complaints challenge the legality of minority grants and fellowships at Indiana University at Columbus, Minnesota State University at Moorhead, Kansas State University and Western Kentucky University, among others.

Half of the scholarships were either shelved or had their eligibility requirements changed after the complaints were filed, Jacobson said.

Some universities say they have begun changing the terms of scholarships in ways they hope will still achieve diversity, including focusing on students from low-income households or who are the first in their families to attend college.

At Northwest Missouri State University, money for a “multicultural scholarship” is being used instead to create a new scholarship for first-generation college students. Students who are already recipients of the sunsetting scholarship can have their awards renewed, the university said.

At Duke, officials will allocate funding from the defunct scholarship for Black undergraduates to a new leadership program and to needs-based financial aid. The scholarship was established to honor Reginaldo Howard, the first Black president of the Associated Students of Duke University.

The reimagined scholarship will “expand the impact of Howard’s legacy to many more Duke students with a commitment to leadership and social justice,” Duke Provost Alec Gallimore said. The move, he said, “is aligned with our commitment to increase support for our Black students and to ensure all of our students have everything they need.”

But Powell, from the National Association for College Admission Counseling, worries that a focus on income or first-generation status would ignore the reality of racial disparities in wealth and access to opportunities.

“Just because you’re a middle-class Black person or high-income Latinx person doesn’t mean you have the same access to opportunity in the K-12 space,” Powell said.

Colleges could also tailor scholarships to target students in certain Zip codes, first-generation STEM students or ethnic studies majors, said David Hinojosa, director of the Educational Opportunities Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

“There are lots of options that colleges and universities can still engage in to ensure that students across races and backgrounds are welcomed and able to attend their university,” Hinojosa said.

Universities could also learn from law firms that have shifted the focus of their diversity fellowships from an applicant’s race to their commitment to equity, said Yoshino, the NYU School of Law professor. Affirmative action opponent Edward Blum dropped his discrimination lawsuit against the law firm Morrison Foerster after the firm opened its program to anyone who demonstrated a commitment to equity and inclusion in the legal profession.

But universities should proceed with caution when trying to achieve diversity through other means, Yoshino said. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. warned that “what cannot be done directly cannot be done indirectly,” signaling that workarounds could run afoul of the law, Yoshino said.

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