Will Holistic Review Replace Affirmative Action in the Admissions Process?

Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
Updated July 28, 2023
    The Supreme Court banned affirmative action in college admissions. Holistic review is the most likely alternative to replace affirmative action.
    Nursing students studying togetherCredit: Getty Images
    • On June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court overturned affirmative action in college admissions.
    • Many colleges and universities will use holistic review to replace affirmative action.
    • Holistic review aims to improve diversity and student success in nursing education.

    In June 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court banned the use of affirmative action policies in college admissions. But what will replace affirmative action? And can colleges consider race at all when admitting students?

    While the affirmative action decision upended decades of legal precedent, it might have a smaller-than-expected impact on the college admissions process. That’s because many colleges have been using holistic review for years.

    The Supreme Court Bans Affirmative Action in College Admissions

    In June 2023, the Supreme Court declared in a 6-3 ruling that colleges cannot use affirmative action to make admissions decisions. But this ruling was far from the first time that the Supreme Court weighed in on affirmative action.

    Affirmative action grew out of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. In an effort to increase access to higher education for historically excluded groups, many colleges set aside a specific number of seats in each class for racial minorities.

    However, the Supreme Court stepped in to change how colleges factored race into admissions. In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled that so-called racial quota systems were unconstitutional.

    Since then, courts have weighed in on affirmative action policies multiple times. These rulings created a legal precedent that colleges could consider applicant’s race when making admission decisions because it served a “compelling interest.” Factoring in race increased diversity on campus, which benefits all students.

    However, the Supreme Court reversed that precedent in 2023. As the majority opinion ruled, “Many universities have for too long . . . concluded, wrongly, that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned but the color of their skin.”

    In their ruling, the court’s majority declared that race-conscious admissions violated the Constitution. Colleges could no longer use affirmative action policies to admit diverse students.

    The Role Affirmative Action Played in College Admissions

    What role did affirmative action play in college admissions before the most recent Supreme Court ruling? Since the 1960s, affirmative action policies have helped increase diversity on college campuses.

    “Statistics show that affirmative action policies have been successful in increasing minority enrollment in colleges,” declared a 2004 study in the Journal of College Admissions. In 1965, African Americans made up less than 5% of college students; that number grew to 11% by 1998.

    The impact of race-conscious admissions is particularly clear in states that have banned affirmative action. Nine states banned affirmative action at public colleges in the 1990s and early 2000s, including California, Texas, and Florida.

    After the ban, a shrinking percentage of the state’s Black, Hispanic, and Native American high school graduates enrolled at flagship universities, according to a 2020 study in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. Years later, the gap between minority graduation rates and college enrollment continued to widen.

    Can alternatives to affirmative action like holistic review provide access to higher education while also promoting diversity?

    Holistic Review: An Alternative to Affirmative Action

    Holistic review is an alternative to affirmative action. This process evaluates applicants based on their academic record, letters of recommendation, community service, work experience, and other factors that may include race.

    Many universities have already implemented holistic admissions policies. Washington state banned affirmative action at public universities in 1998. Since then, the University of Washington has used holistic review. As the UW Office of Admissions explains, “Holistic review is a comprehensive assessment of your academic performance and personal qualities and achievements.”

    [over] disadvantages,” which can include hardships based on race or ethnicity.

    While the Supreme Court seemingly closed the door on any form of race-conscious admissions, the June 2023 ruling carves out an exception for holistic review.

    “Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life,” the majority opinion stated. As a result, admissions offices can factor in personal statements or letters of recommendation that discuss race.

    What Holistic Review Means for Prospective Nursing Students

    In the wake of the Supreme Court ruling, will the college admissions process change drastically for prospective nursing students? Since many colleges already use holistic review, applicants will likely not see major changes.

    Further, research shows that holistic admissions benefits nursing students. A 2017 study of admissions at health professions schools, including nursing schools, determined that holistic review has a positive impact on diversity. That study also found a positive link between holistic admissions and student success.

    “This study shows that holistic review is an effective strategy for schools that seek to improve access to higher education, diversity in the health professions, and overall student success,” explained to Dr. Yvonne T. Maddox, the acting director of the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities in 2017.

    [h]olistic review promotes diversity of nursing students and future nurse providers.”

    Diversity in nursing benefits patients, as the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) states. In their 2020 recommendations on admissions practices at nursing schools, AACN endorsed a holistic approach that considers “academic readiness, contribution to the incoming class, past work and life experiences, and potential for success.”

    When applying to nursing school, applicants from underrepresented groups can highlight their background and include examples of overcoming adversity. They can also ask letter writers to discuss the unique perspective and cultural competencies that applicants can bring to the profession.

    The end of affirmative action does not mean colleges will give up on diversity—instead, programs will use other methods, like holistic review, in admissions.