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The Next America - Education 2012 / Education

Supreme Court Case Brings Affirmative-Action Debate Back in the Limelight

The Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium at the University of Texas in Austin. The university says it does not admit applicants solely on the basis of race.(Flickr/DanMoralesPhotography)

August 14, 2012

Educators, civil-rights advocacy groups, and the Obama administration are urging the Supreme Court to back programs that promote diversity in the country’s public colleges and universities.

On Monday, more than 70 Asian-American and Pacific Islander groups, California’s largest public university systems, the American Council on Education, the College Board, and the White House were among those filing friend-of-the-court briefs, arguing that admissions programs that consider race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and geography do not discriminate but instead level the playing field.

The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in October on Fisher v. University of Texas, a case that could overturn or uphold the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger ruling that found affirmative-action policies to be constitutional.


The university follows a state provision guaranteeing automatic admission to state-funded universities for high school students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their class. At the core of the case is how the university chooses to fill the remainder of the freshman class and whether its process is unconstitutionally using race as a factor.

In a brief filed with the Supreme Court, the university maintains that it uses a constitutional “holistic review” of factors including educational, geographic, and socioeconomic background.

Abigail Fisher, who is white, sued the university in 2008, alleging that she was not accepted because of her race. The university says it received an estimated 30,000 applications that year, with the vast majority being in-state applicants, for only 6,715 spots.

The university argues that while it seeks “a high standard for diversity” for its part in educating tomorrow’s world leaders, the institution doesn’t admit applicants solely on the basis of their race.

Supporters of this policy say taking into account a candidate’s academic and personal achievements—say, if the student is the first in his or her family to attend college or has done community service abroad—ensures that colleges are more reflective of the country.

But it’s not simply a matter of “civic responsibility,” the Justice Department argued in the legal brief filed on Monday. Having a diverse workforce ready to compete in a global economy and meet national-security threats is of critical interest to the U.S.

“Careers in a range of fields that are vital to the national interests—such as the military officer corps, science, law, medicine, finance, education, and other professions (for which a university degree is a requirement)—must be open to all segments of American society, regardless of race and ethnicity,” according to the brief.

How will a highly diverse nation be educated?

Supporters say contributions in the economy, science, and social-justice areas are better formed when students from various backgrounds work together, especially in an increasingly changing workforce.

Diversity on college campuses is essential to fostering a robust exchange of ideas and improving the quality of education. Higher education institutions have an obligation to prepare students to meet the challenges of a highly global society, said Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, in a statement.

“Offering students the lessons only a diverse campus can impart is a vital teaching tool that institutions must retain in order to equip students for success in their personal and professional lives,” Broad said.

Other states, including California and Florida, have similar policies that guarantee top students admission to state universities as part of their efforts to boost diversity. The purpose of Texas’s program is to provide a “race-neutral” method of building diversity.

In addition, while such provisions guarantee admission to a state-funded university to top graduating students, that doesn’t mean they’ll enroll. Other factors, including the student’s ability to pay tuition and cultural factors within the school, can contribute to the likelihood of a minority student choosing to attend.

“Ten-percent rules are probably better than nothing in terms of achieving diversity, but by themselves I don’t think they achieve the level of diversity that folks like to see,” said Sean F. Reardon, sociology professor at Stanford University’s School of Education.

Reardon, who studies trends of social and educational inequalities, co-authored a report released in August examining how effective diversity programs have been in increasing enrollment at selective universities. The report found that while diversity programs like the Texas Top 10 Percent rule can help, it was insufficient in creating a fully diverse student body.

(RELATEDReport: Black, Hispanic Students Underrepresented at Top Universities.)

Reardon said he agreed with former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s majority opinion on Grutter v. Bollinger that found affirmative action necessary—but with hope that in 25 years, the educational system will be reformed enough that such programs would no longer be needed.

Many Still Left Behind

Despite modest educational gains made by immigrants in the last decade, some students continue to face barriers in educational attainment.

Using a holistic approach to college admissions addresses racial inequalities that can open the doors to higher education for many Asian students who are still underrepresented in college admissions, said Winifred Kao, staff attorney with the Asian Law Caucus.

A 2011 New York University study found that a majority of Vietnamese, Hmong, Laotians, and Cambodians 25 and older lack a postsecondary education.

Immigrant experiences, economic backgrounds, and educational attainment of parents contribute to a fragile pipeline toward higher education for some of these groups.

“Many are still suffering difficulties in accessing the higher-education system,” said Kao. Her organization was one of dozens of signatories to the legal briefs. 

Asians, overall, continue to be underrepresented in some areas, including such fields as history, sociology, and education, Kao said.

In addition, some schools in lower-income communities may lack rigorous courses or advanced-placement classes for students, further diminishing their chances of gaining admissions to universities.

"The point is not to look at the numbers in isolation," Kao said. 

The Supreme Court’s expected October ruling will be the first since Grutter v. Bollinger was decided nine years ago. The makeup of this Supreme Court is widely considered to be more conservative than it was in 2003.

Stanford University professor Reardon said affirmative-action programs like Texas’s top 10 percent rule can still have their place in helping to close the racial gaps in colleges and universities, but they’re not the sole answer.

He noted that closing the racial gap within education starts with addressing the issues that have long separated underachieving minority students from their peers—before they go on to higher education.

“Until we fix that, we’re still going to have a problem,” Reardon said.  


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