Emory & Henry College. Photo courtesy of Emory & Henry.

Colleges across the U.S. can no longer use race as a factor when considering applications, the Supreme Court decided June 29. 

The move effectively ends the practice many know as “affirmative action” to boost diversity on college campuses.

College applicants may still be able to reference their race in their application essay, according to early analysis of the decision, but it’s unclear so far where schools will draw the line as they review their admissions processes.

The decision largely affects elite, competitive schools where there are far fewer seats in an incoming class than there are applicants. Analysis from the Chronicle of Higher Education found that only 68 of the more than 3,100 two-and four-year schools in the U.S. admit less than 25% of applicants. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, one of the schools scrutinized in the cases heard by the Supreme Court, fewer than 2 in 10 applicants are admitted. 

Schools in Southwest and Southside Virginia have far higher acceptance rates. The University of Virginia’s College at Wise admits about 76% of applicants, as does private Averett University in Danville. And at Radford University, 93% of applicants were accepted last year.

At colleges facing enrollment declines — including most of those in the region — there are plenty of seats available. And at community colleges, which some high school graduates are choosing over traditional colleges to fast-track their technical careers, open admissions is the norm.

Some schools in Southwest Virginia already don’t consider race in admissions, including Radford, the Virginia Military Institute, and Emory & Henry.

In a statement following the Supreme Court decision, spokesperson Jennifer Pearce from Emory & Henry said, “We have a high population of first generation students that are attracted to E&H and believe that diversity of all kinds including one’s lived experiences works to enhance academic experience and remains integral to a strong private, nonprofit higher education institution.” 

E&H, which has a student body of about 1,100 undergraduates, has an acceptance rate of 97%. 

Virginia Tech, meanwhile, has about 30,000 undergraduate students and an acceptance rate of 57%. But at Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine in Roanoke, the competition is fierce. Nearly 7,000 people applied for the class of 2026. Of those, only 287 made it to the interview stage. And among those, only 49 applicants were accepted. That means the acceptance rate of those who applied was approximately 0.7%.

Josh Meyer, head of communications at the medical school, said it’s too early to know exactly how the Supreme Court ruling will affect admissions there. For now, it plans to follow the guidance of Virginia Tech’s leadership, which is reviewing the decision, according to a statement out of Blacksburg shortly after the ruling on June 29.

Changes in other states prior to the Supreme Court decision offer a preview of options schools that consider race will still have in fostering diverse student populations — and what challenges they might face.

California banned race-based admissions at its public universities in 1996, and some schools struggled to make up for the diversity rates they saw prior to the change, according to NPR. The effects can compound over time: If campus diversity shifts and prospective students don’t see many people who look like them during a campus visit, they may not even apply, seeking instead to prioritize schools where they may feel more supported by their peers.

A few tactics that have helped foster diversity in the University of California system after affirmative action was banned include guaranteeing admission to the top performing students across the state, along with a recent move to stop requiring scores from costly standardized tests like the SAT on applications. 

But shifts like these, along with increasing outreach and recruiting efforts, are time intensive, and can be expensive. The University of California system spent a half-billion to boost diversity after race-conscious admissions were barred, NPR noted. 

As schools think about how to adjust their processes, they’ll have to understand the financial implications of those adjustments, said Melanie Gottlieb, executive director of the American Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers. “We can’t strip admissions officers of every tool that they might have in order to assess whether or not a learner is ready,” she said during a call with reporters shortly after the Supreme Court decision. 

Gottlieb said her association works with colleges to utilize a holistic admissions approach, which “allows an institution to craft a diverse class based on the needs of the learners that they have, and the missions of their institutions and the preparation they wish to give to learners for workforce needs.” 

Southwest Virginia schools that already didn’t consider race in admissions may offer some examples to neighboring institutions in the months ahead. 

Private Emory & Henry makes its Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging easy to find on its web pages catering to prospective students. It hosts an entire “DEI Week” in January around Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and has a bias response team ready to address any concerns on campus. It also hosts special ceremonies for graduates from various ethnic groups, first-generation students, students with disabilities, and for LGBTQ+ students. 

Meanwhile, Radford, a public university, points applicants to a directory of more than 450 partial scholarships awarded by its foundation alongside typical merit and need-based grants from the school. 

Prospective students can submit one application for consideration for those scholarships during the same period their admission application is being reviewed, and a few of the available scholarships give preference to minority students. 

Additional scholarship awards could push an accepted applicant to enroll, rather than attend another school with a more competitive aid package.

Lisa Rowan is education reporter for Cardinal News. She can be reached at lisa@cardinalnews.org or 540-384-1313.