Accreditation Can Support Diversity Efforts in the Wake of the Supreme Court Decision

Accreditation standards addressing diversity and equity are one way to support diversity on college campuses in the wake of the Supreme Court's ban on affirmative action.
Blog Post
The United States Supreme Court building on a sunny day
Steven Frame/
July 25, 2023

In ten years, new students heading to college may walk into their first class and find a much less diverse student body than they would today. For years, affirmative action has been a tool for many colleges and universities to expand educational opportunities for historically marginalized and minoritized students. States that banned affirmative action at public colleges, specifically California and Michigan, have seen significant declines in postsecondary enrollment from Black and Latinx students at public selective colleges and universities. States and institutions have implemented various “race-neutral” admission policies that have tried to increase diversity. However, colleges have yet to reclaim the numbers they once had before their state affirmative action bans.

In the future, the same thing could happen across the country. In late June, the Supreme Court struck down Harvard University and the University of North Carolina’s race-conscious admissions policies, ending 45 years of precedent where race can no longer be considered in college admissions. As prior paths to achieving diversity on college campuses are closed off, others must be broadened, including promoting diversity through the accreditation process

What is Accreditation, and How Can It Support Colleges Diversity Efforts?

The Supreme Court decision on affirmative action has come at a time when there has already been an erosion of protections for ensuring diversity on campus. Recent attacks from Republican lawmakers in state legislatures and in Congress seek to ban initiatives and programs meant to sustain diversity in higher education. For example, Florida and Texas have banned campus offices and programs intended to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion and support minoritized students. Accreditation standards are one place that colleges can be held accountable for ensuring that they enroll and graduate a diverse body of students.

Accreditors are part of the program integrity triad, along with the Education Department and states, that act as gatekeepers for federal student aid money. Accreditors are charged with ensuring the academic quality of the colleges they endorse. Accreditors set a variety of standards, and colleges and universities must prove they meet those standards to gain and maintain accreditation and with it, access to federal financial aid. For example, accreditors can require that institutions employ appropriately trained and qualified faculty, assess whether students receive sufficient academic support, and make sure that students are completing their programs at a reasonable rate.

That’s why it’s so critical that accreditors are mindful of the role they can play in establishing and strengthening standards that promote DEI. At its core, accreditation is focused on ensuring students receive a quality education by setting standards that institutions must meet. Accreditation standards are also about ensuring that all students receive the same quality of education and have the opportunity and support to succeed. Anti DEI efforts run counter to these standards, preventing students of color from having access to a safe and inclusive environment on campus that promotes academic success.

If students of color do not have access to a safe and inclusive environment to learn in, how do we expect them to graduate on time or even just graduate? Research shows that diversity enriches not just the experience of minoritized students but all students. And, when institutions are firmly committed to DEI, it produces strong academic outcomes and social effects, which can serve as a mechanism for attracting more students to come to their institution.

Standards related to DEI are not a new area for many accreditors. Six of the seven major accreditors already have diversity and equity metrics in their standards. WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC) has perhaps the most clear-cut standard, stating that institutions should ensure their approach to student support “promotes the success of all students, and makes explicit its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.” The only agency not to have an explicit standard is the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACS), and even in that case, the agency encourages institutions to “cultivate and sustain inclusive and equitable processes.”

But accreditors can and should do more to push institutions to embrace DEI and give cover to those institutions who feel pressure from their states to abandon the pursuit of equity and inclusion on campus. They can develop standards that promote diversity across three crucial domains: admissions, student support, and faculty diversity.

  • Admissions. Requiring that diversity is considered in admission standards can motivate colleges to create preparation and pipeline programs focusing on outreach and recruitment to high schools and community colleges in underserved communities. Accreditors can also pressure institutions to reimagine their admission requirements that promote racial equity by going test-optional or blind or rethinking required high school courses. For example, due to severe underfunding in our K-12 education system, not all high schools have equal access to advanced-level or college-ready courses that many colleges and universities require students to have when applying for admissions.
  • Student support. Once admitted, students of color need access to resources and support to help them persist and graduate on time. Admitting a diverse student body should not be the endpoint for achieving racial equity in higher education. Data show that white students are likelier to graduate on time than Black and Latinx students. Accreditation standards could provide an opportunity to ensure that minoritized students have access to culturally-specific programs and resources that will support them in their postsecondary success.
  • Faculty diversity. Having diverse faculty is critical as we aim to support students from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds. As students navigate academia, seeing professors that look like them can provide the necessary encouragement that they, too, can be successful in higher education. Existing research finds that when students from underrepresented minoritized groups have teachers with the same racial or ethnic background, they report greater efforts in school and look up to these instructors as role models. Faculty of color also often serve in a mentoring capacity to students of color.
  • Accreditors should continue to push institutions to hire and retain a diverse group of faculty and staff. When institutions bring faculty of color to their campuses, they also benefit from integrating different voices and perspectives into the academy. Increasing diversity among faculty ranks allows for more variety in course offerings and curricula, and all students benefit when they are exposed to new ideas and worldviews. Since higher education was initially designed to serve the white majority, this diversity of perspectives is essential in making academia a more inclusive space for people of color.

The ban on race-conscious admission could signal a downward spiral of diversity on our college campuses, but this doesn’t have to be a given. From admissions to academics and student support, all the way to graduation rates, accreditors are in the perfect position as guardians of federal financial aid to promote diversity on college campuses around the country. By putting diversity, equity, and inclusion standards front and center in accreditation, agencies can not only push institutions to keep their focus on equitable access and outcomes for all students, but they can also protect institutions and, by extension, students from political overreach from those who wish to eradicate years of progress for underrepresented minorities in higher education.

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