December is crunch time for admissions at the University of Utah.

Once the Dec. 1 early action deadline passes, some 50 application readers — full-time staff and “seasonal” workers — have approximately five weeks to review and process thousands of applications in time to get prospective first-year students’ acceptance letters in the mail by Jan. 15.

It’s intense.

It’s also nothing like what you may think after reading coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision this week in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard. The court’s ruling questioned 40 years of higher education leaders’ efforts to make America’s college campuses look more like the communities around them. But at Utah’s flagship university, perception is not reality.

At the University of Utah, we do not consider race or ethnicity in admissions. We do, however, actively work with high schools, community-based organizations and other civic groups to attract historically underrepresented domestic minority groups. Through this outreach we have been able to create an environment where exceptional students from differing cultures, geographies, ages, faith traditions, viewpoints and experiences feel welcome and thrive.

How do we do that without checked boxes and quotas? Admissions director John Marfield will tell you it’s both art and science.

“We select students we think will succeed in a rigorous academic environment,” he says. “Our applicant pool is competitive. If our applicant pool wasn’t really strong, we wouldn’t admit as many students.”

After affirmative action, admissions must look to the content of one’s character

Each year, the process kicks into high gear in August, when prospective students start their journey to the university by filling out the Common App, a simple, standardized application used by colleges and universities across the country. It includes GPA and transcripts, optional ACT or SAT test scores. And yes, there’s a box to check for race and ethnicity.

Those are the simple steps. Many colleges and departments have unique application requirements: The Honors College and David Eccles School of Business expect a personal essay. Engineering requires an analysis of advanced math and science courses. Applicants to fine arts programs like theater or music performance must complete an audition.

Each piece of an application is carefully considered as our application readers review each student’s academic record and life experiences. Primary factors like GPA and course rigor are the first threshold an application must pass. Secondary factors — including optional test scores, student involvement and extracurricular activities — can push an application teetering on the edge into the “yes” pile.

President Taylor Randall speaks during the University of Utah’s commencement in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 4, 2023. With 8,723 graduates, it is the largest group of graduates in the school’s history. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Taylor Randall inaugurated as University of Utah’s 17th president

Three years ago, 15,000 would-be students applied to the University of Utah. This year, 22,000 students completed their applications. Over the course of the year, an application reader will review 600 to 800 applications. And, as Marfield says, a new class of incoming college students is selected, college by college, department by department, person by person.

We expect our applications to increase and diversify dramatically in coming years as Utah transitions to what the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute has termed the “New Utah.”

The New Utah includes several revealing characteristics. Utah is now a midsized, multicultural state for the first time in state history. This growth and change is fueled by in-migration. Last year Utah experienced a record level of net in-migration. For the past two years Utah has gained more population from the outside than from ourselves. Importantly, since 2011 Utah’s economy has performed at an elite level enabling Utahns to pay for current needs and invest in the future.

This is the New Utah.

The university fully embraces its role in supporting, serving and guiding the New Utah. We seek to become a top-10 public university with unsurpassed societal impact. That means making the promise of higher education — higher lifelong earnings, improved well-being and boundless opportunity — available to every Utahn. That is the role of a great American university.

I encourage Utahns to remember three things when they think of the University of Utah and the Supreme Court’s recent college admissions decision:

First, when it comes to admissions, the U. focuses on a person’s ability to succeed in a rigorous academic environment. Our acceptance process is the same for all participants.

Second, we actively reach out to historically under-represented minority groups to help them realize the promise of higher education and to help the Utah economy thrive. And third, the economic and demographic forces of the New Utah create extraordinary opportunities for Utah to value all communities and focus on the well-being of every Utahn.

We are committed to amplify the New Utah.

Taylor Randall was selected as the 17th president of the University of Utah in August 2021.