Admissions Experts Worried about Implications of Affirmative Action Case
The Supreme Court plans to revisit the issue of affirmative action in college admissions processes again, just several years after it OK’d certain practices, and some education experts say the high court’s decision could make creating diverse schools more challenging.
Justices will hear arguments later this year in a case involving a University of Texas applicant, Abigail Fisher, who says she was discriminated against because of her race in the school’s denial of her application. Critics of the university’s policy argue that, because the school automatically admits those in the top 10 percent of high schools to promote one type of diversity, the consideration of race as a factor in the admissions process in not necessary.
Some admissions experts told The New York Times that revisiting the issue so soon—nine years after the Supreme Court said race could be a factor in admissions—could create problems.
“What happens with the next president, the next Supreme Court appointee? Do we revisit it again, so that higher education is zigging and zagging? If the court says that any consideration of race whatsoever is prohibited, then we’re in a real pickle,” Tom Parker, dean of admissions at Amherst College, told the Times. “Bright kids have no interest in homogeneity. They find it creepy.”
The issue has not been addressed by the Supreme Court since a pair of 2003 cases involving the University of Michigan undergraduate and law school admissions programs. The Court ruled against the university’s undergraduate policy, which gave some applicants automatic points in their admissions score, in Gratz v. Bollinger, but ruledin favor of the law school’s policy in Grutter v. Bollinger, which took applicants’ race into consideration but without giving an automatic quantitative advantage.
Admissions experts interviewed by the Times agreed that eliminating race as a factor could make it increasingly more difficult to achieve a diverse student body.
Stephen Farmer, the vice provost at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, told the paper: “We do focus on socioeconomic status and other factors, and they’re helpful, but without race-conscious admissions, I don’t think we could get the same results. … I don’t think any school has ever found a way to remain as racially diverse as it already is in the absence of the practices outlined in the Grutter case.”
The precedent set by the 5-4 rulings in both cases dealt a blow to some affirmative action policies, while allowing for some to exist under specific guidelines. But the Court, now with a different make-up of justices, could view the issue differently this time, experts say.
In the time since the 2003 cases, Sandra Day O’ Connor—who wrote the majority opinion in both cases—retired and was replaced by Samuel Alito, an outspoken critic of affirmative action. In addition, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has been critical of using race in such processes.
In a 2007 ruling regarding Seattle public schools’ efforts to integrate students by using race, Roberts wrote: “Racial balancing is not transformed from ‘patently unconstitutional’ to a compelling state interest simply by relabeling it ‘racial diversity’.”
Alito’s addition to the bench—coupled with pro-affirmative action justice Elena Kagan’s decision to recuse herself from the case because of previous work as solicitor general—could mean an end to affirmative action as many colleges and universities know it.
Kellan Schmidt is a journalism intern with Campus Progress.