Updated at 10:50 a.m. May 11

As the Supreme Court once again considers the role of race in college admissions, colleges are pondering what alternatives they might use if the justices ban race as a factor in selecting students. It’s a scenario that has played out at least once before, yielding another approach that was floated then quickly scuttled. The so-called strivers model could be resurrected now.

In the late 1990s, Anthony Carnevale was working in Washington as a vice president at the Educational Testing Service, the nonprofit that administers the SAT. A challenge to the consideration of race in admissions, at the University of Michigan, was headed to the Supreme Court. Carnevale was worried Grutter v. Bollinger endangered the future of the college placement test.

“If race-based affirmative action goes down, so does the test,” he recalled musing. “Colleges want to get rid of the test because it means they have more discretion letting in rich kids and legacies.”

Carnevale’s research team developed a tool, which he recently described “as a sincere, good guy kind of thing,” that would give low-income, high-performing minority students — “strivers” — extra consideration. It would calculate an estimated higher score such strivers would have received absent the obstacles they faced since their test scores tend to be lower than their more prosperous, white and Asian suburban peers. His announcement of the strivers model in 2000 evoked a fierce backlash from college leaders who said it violated the country’s professed ideal of a meritocracy.

Now, a more conservative Supreme Court appears poised to strike down race-conscious admissions in cases involving Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. Ina 99-page brief filed this earlier month, the group seeking to end the use of race in college admissions asked the justices to overturn precedents, including the court’s 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger that upheld the narrow consideration of race in admissions. The justices will hear the new cases together this fall.

The prospect of a Supreme Court ruling against the current admissions practice has left selective colleges wondering how they might otherwise achieve racial-ethnic diversity.

“Selective colleges are remarkably homogeneous, and that’s not good for education,” said Josh Wyner, founder and executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program. “The evidence shows that the vast majority of students at these colleges come from not just the top half of the economic distribution, but the top quartile or quintile.”

A Pew Research Center poll out this month confirmed a large majority of the public opposes race-conscious admissions — 74 percent of adults think race and ethnicity should not be considered. Instead, the public views grades and test scores as top factors.

The tools already exist for higher-ed institutions to look beyond GPA to applicant’s circumstances. Landscape is a free resource developed by The College Board, which owns the SAT, that provides colleges with high school and neighborhood information for free, like the income levels and home ownership and crime rates where an applicant lives.

“Sometimes high schools are not staffed in a way to be able to give us that level of detail,” said Elizabeth Creighton, dean of admissions and financial aid at Williams College, one of more than 200 schools that have used the database since it launched five years ago.

“The Landscape information just helps us understand a little bit about the environment that students have grown up in,” Creighton said.

Wyner says colleges seek diversity because they know that students learn best when they sit alongside others from different backgrounds.

“Seeking diversity is not optional for colleges,” he said. “They’ll have to figure out how to accomplish that goal if the Supreme Court limits their ability to use race in admissions.”

"Seeking diversity is not optional for colleges. They'll have to figure out how to accomplish that goal if the Supreme Court limits their ability to use race in admissions."
Josh Wyner, founder and executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program

Wyner says the first mistake that many colleges make is looking to admit only recent high school graduates. He recommends they start dipping into other pools with more racial-ethnic diversity.

“We know that [transfer students] are much more diverse,” he explained. “Community college students are much more diverse than the students in four-year institutions. They mirror the diversity of our country. How about veterans? We have a very diverse set of veterans coming back from service who actually have [college] benefits. What about students taking dual enrollment classes in high school?”

Under Carnevale’s decades-old model, how much strivers underperformed on the SAT would be quantified. Landscape merely provide admissions officers information about applicants’ socio-economic circumstances without estimating the negative impact on their scores.

“We were going to build a device for them to do this, and it would have worked,” Carnevale predicted. “I mean, we were pretty sure these kids would graduate."

But colleges privately rejected the idea at the time.

“People think it ought to be about merit,” he said. “The strength of the negative reaction was really something to see."

Carnevale, an economist, recalls the blowback was so strong that his boss at the Educational Testing Service told him to destroy the research on strivers. In a column in the New York Times, Nicholas Lemann reported the ETS promptly issued talking points to all employees that said, “There is no product, no program, and no service based upon the Strivers research.” Ultimately, Carnevale was forced out, he said.

“I had a corner office with at least six windows. I was moved into an office with no windows,” he said, laughing. “My staff had to cram into what were basically a few other windowless offices, and somebody was hired who was obviously qualified to do my job.”

The Educational Testing Service did not respond to a GBH News inquiry about the circumstances of Carnevale's departure.

Today, Carnevale directs the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. He’s watching the Harvard and UNC cases closely and hopes the court upholds race-conscious admissions.

“We are a nation of slaveholders and racists,” he said. “It’s that simple. Clearly in the last few years, we’ve seen evidence once again that we still are. We don’t have slaves, but we sure are racists.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Josh Wyner’s name.

Produced with assistance from the Public Media Journalists Association Editor Corps funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.