Supreme Court Affirms Race as Factor in College Admissions

Monday, June 27, 2016
(graphic: Jayeesh, Getty Images)




By Anemona Hartocollis, New York Times


College admissions experts breathed a sigh of relief Thursday when the Supreme Court upheld a University of Texas admissions plan that allows race and ethnicity to be considered as one of many factors in admission.


“I think there are going to be some parties tonight in high school counseling offices and in college admissions offices,” said Phil Trout, the president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling and a college counselor at Minnetonka High School outside Minneapolis. “'Sigh of relief’ is not strong enough.”


In its ruling (pdf), the Supreme Court noted that the Texas plan — which automatically grants admission to roughly the top 10 percent of students across the state, then uses race as one of many factors in considering the rest — was unique and very much a product of Texas politics, law and demographics.


But what was encouraging about the court decision, experts said, was that in affirming the value of diversity, including race and ethnicity, in higher education, the court recognized there was not one, immutable way of defining and achieving it.


“It’s a terrific outcome,” said Peter McDonough, the vice president and general counsel at the American Council on Education. “I think today’s decision is about deference. It’s not about dictating. I think it’s about the continuing recognition that our country’s campuses are laboratories for experimentation and that the formula for diversity does remain elusive. It changes over time, and it is impacted by context.”


McDonough echoed a critical part of the Supreme Court opinion that described public universities as “laboratories for experimentation” and called on the University of Texas at Austin “to scrutinize the fairness of its admissions program; to assess whether changing demographics have undermined the need for a race-conscious policy; and to identify the effects, both positive and negative, of the affirmative-action measures it deems necessary.”


The decision was made on fairly narrow legal grounds and does not establish any bold new policy, said David Hawkins, the executive director for education content and policy of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. “I don’t expect to see a resounding clarion call for further investment in the use of race and ethnicity as an admissions tool,” he said.


Hawkins said he expected colleges to react by heeding the court’s call to be introspective — to “engage in constant deliberation and continued reflection” — about how they achieved diversity.


Several states — including Arizona, California, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Washington — have banned affirmative action, and some education analysts wondered whether the court’s decision would lead to more such backlash.


“Public opinion polling suggests that most Americans don’t like the idea of counting race in deciding who gets into universities,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, who has argued for using poverty rather than race to achieve diversity and said he saw the decision as a setback for that cause.


“Republicans have resisted pushing this issue because they fear that it will generate turnout among African-Americans,” he said. “But all bets are off with Donald Trump. It will be interesting to see what he does.”


Affirmative action bans have led public universities like the University of Michigan to look for other ways to achieve diversity, like reaching out to minority students after they have been offered admission to persuade them to accept.


Experts also said other affirmative action plans could still face challenges in state legislatures and in cases before lower courts challenging admissions policies at Harvard and at the University of North Carolina.


The lawsuits argue that diversity can be achieved through race-neutral alternatives. The Harvard complaint also argues that affirmative action policies have the effect of discriminating against high-achieving Asian-American applicants.


“The lower courts will obviously have the Fisher precedent to apply while looking at those schools’ programs,” said Rachel Kleinman, senior counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, referring to the name of the case, Fisher v. University of Texas, No. 14-981. “I think that could be very helpful.”


Lee C. Bollinger, president of Columbia University, noted that Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., in his dissent, said the Texas plan discriminated against Asian-Americans.


“The points made in Justice Alito’s dissent about his view and the view of dissenters that this discriminates against Asian-Americans, I think, is one of the themes that the opponents of affirmative action are pursuing,” Bollinger said. “I do not expect Fisher to be the end.”


On the campus of the University of Texas, Sergio Cavazos, 20, president of the Senate of College Councils, said he thought students overwhelmingly supported the admissions policy.


Cavazos, a senior government major, is from Brownsville, at the southern tip of Texas on the border with Mexico. One of four children from a middle-class Hispanic family, he graduated from high school in 2013 ranked 10th in his class of 350 and entered the university under its policy of admitting the top 10 percent of graduating high school seniors. He has a full academic scholarship.


“We value diversity on this campus,” he said. “One of the key concerns for me — myself being a Hispanic student from Brownsville — was ensuring this campus remain diverse and representative of the population of this state.”


The court seemed skeptical of using poverty as a proxy for achieving racial diversity, as some have called for. The decision said that Texas had “tried, and failed, to increase diversity through enhanced consideration of socioeconomic and other factors.”


Some have argued that making large allowances for race could lead to admitting students who would flounder because they were “mismatched” to academic standards, a theory that Justice Antonin Scalia seemed to be thinking of during oral arguments in the case. The court said Thursday that “the Equal Protection Clause does not force universities to choose between a diverse student body and a reputation for academic excellence.”


Scalia died in February before he could participate in the Fisher decision.


To Learn More:

            Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin et al (U.S. Supreme Court) (pdf)

Minority Discrimination Seen in Some U.S. College Application Questions (by Letitia Stein, Reuters)

Hidden Discrimination against LGBT Students Seen in Religious College Requests for Anti-Discrimination Law Waivers (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Steve Straehley, AllGov)

Reverse Discrimination Case not what it Appears to be (by Matt Bewig, AllGov)


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