Diversity scholarships under review at UI, regent institutions

The UI is reexamining some scholarship criteria after the end of race-based admissions.
The entrance of the University of Iowas Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion office is seen in Iowa City on Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2023.
The entrance of the University of Iowa’s Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion office is seen in Iowa City on Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2023.
Kathy Le

Since the U.S. Supreme Court ended race-based admissions by striking down affirmative action in June 2023, dozens of institutions have changed their admissions policies. Now thousands of dollars in scholarships aimed at people with diverse backgrounds are under review, including at the University of Iowa.

UI officials told The Daily Iowan that the school began reviewing scholarships after the overturning of affirmative action and when some civil complaints started to be filed against other universities.

In a statement to the DI, UI Assistant Vice President for External Relations Jeneane Beck wrote that the university consulted with the Iowa Attorney General’s Office and the Office of the Iowa Board of Regents on the matter.

“Based on the principles articulated by the Supreme Court, the university is reviewing and amending scholarships and other financial aid offerings that use certain protected class characteristics (e.g. race, gender, age, or sexual orientation) as selection criteria,” Beck wrote.

Since the end of affirmative action, higher education institutions in the U.S. have had to quickly figure out the new law.

Julie J. Park, an associate professor of education at the University of Maryland and researcher of racial equity in higher education, campus racial climate, and college admissions, wrote in an email to the DI that the restriction on race-based admissions caused by the Supreme Court decision technically should not affect scholarships.

“That said, people are drawing the conclusion that if we aren’t allowed to directly know an applicant’s race/ethnicity during undergrad admissions, that scholarships that cater to particular groups are also subject to be challenged,” she wrote.

UI diversity scholarships under review

UI officials said less than 10 percent of all university scholarships are being reviewed and not all of those will have to change. The criteria and wording for affected scholarships will likely be changed to be inclusive of people from all backgrounds, as opposed to people from a specific ethnic or racial group.

Some UI scholarships have already been impacted, including the Advantage Iowa Award. While the award was previously reserved for incoming first-year students from historically underrepresented populations, including those with African American, Hispanic, Native American, Pacific Islander, and multiracial backgrounds, it will now be a need-based award for students of all backgrounds.

At this time, it is undetermined when the review will be completed. UI officials told the DI that they will have to read through each scholarship to see if it includes a protected class characteristic in its criteria, then meet with each scholarship donor to assess whether they are willing to change the wording and criteria of their fund.

In an email to the DI, regents’ Senior Communications Director Josh Lehman wrote that each university is handling its review individually.

“The universities consulted with the Board office on this issue. As financial aid is managed at the institutional level, the universities are currently reviewing their financial aid offerings to ensure compliance and consistency among all regent institutions,” he wrote.

Iowa State University and the Iowa Attorney General’s Office did not respond to requests for comment on the reviewing process.

University of Northern Iowa Director of University Relations Pete Moris wrote in an email to the DI that all scholarships are based on merit or financial need.

“There are various criteria across the many colleges and departments, but none of them involved protected class characteristics,” he wrote.

Higher education institutions face lawsuits

Multiple lawsuits were filed against universities that continue to have programs and scholarships designated for students of a certain race or background. One example is a complaint against Kansas State University filed on Aug. 16, 2023, for providing a “racially discriminatory” multicultural student scholarship.

The scholarship, titled the Joey Lee Garmon Multicultural Scholarship, is “directed toward students of historically underrepresented backgrounds. The applicant must be of an ethnic group that have been historically and traditionally oppressed in the achievement of academic and leadership endeavors to include applicants of African American, American Indian, Asian American, and Latinx American heritage.”

The complaint, which was filed with the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education by the Equal Protection Project of the Legal Insurrection Foundation, argues that the scholarship violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which “prohibits intentional discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin in any ‘program or activity’ that receives federal financial assistance.”

Title VI also “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race in federally funded programs,” and thus “applies to universities receiving federal financial assistance,” the complaint states, quoting from the case Rowles v. Curators of the Univ. of Mo.

“The guarantee of equal protection cannot mean one thing when applied to one individual and something else when applied to a person of another color. If both are not accorded the same protection, then it is not equal,’” the complaint states, quoting the case.

Now, other complaints similar to the ones filed against Kansas State University are impacting other institutions, including Big Ten school the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which is facing a complaint from the same company for “supporting and promoting a program that engages in invidious discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin.”

However, while characteristics such as gender, race and ethnicity, and sexual orientation are selection criteria that are subject to change, identity factors such as experiencing a disability and being a member or citizen of a tribe will not necessarily be impacted.

“Native American tribal designation is a legal designation and not necessarily a racial/ethnic one. That said, there are many Native Americans who do not have a documented tribal affiliation due to complex issues, so there still may be implications for Native communities,” Park wrote.

As institutions grapple with what to do with diversity scholarships moving forward, Park wrote that she thinks many will end up changing criteria to be in line with the affirmative action decision if they have not already.

“I think many of them have already shifted, from scholarships designated for certain groups to scholarships meant to support students with a commitment to diversity and serving diverse populations,” Park wrote.

Additionally, she wrote that the changes could mean some implications for diversity in enrollment at universities in the future and fewer opportunities for students from diverse backgrounds.

“I think that many racially minoritized students struggle to finance higher education, so any restriction on scholarships will likely affect opportunity,” Park wrote.

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