Supreme Court: If Affirmative Action Is Banned, What Happens at Colleges?

By Khadaroo, Stacy Teicher | The Christian Science Monitor, October 9, 2012 | Go to article overview

Supreme Court: If Affirmative Action Is Banned, What Happens at Colleges?


Khadaroo, Stacy Teicher, The Christian Science Monitor


When universities are barred from using race-based affirmative action, what happens to campus diversity?

Thats one key question the US Supreme Court may consider as it once again takes up the issue of affirmative action in higher education, in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin on Wednesday. Depending on how the high court rules, it could lead to public colleges and universities across the country dropping the consideration of race in admissions decisions.

The last time the Supreme Court took up the issue, in the 2003 case Grutter v. Bollinger, it ruled that the University of Michigan Law School could use race as one factor in admissions. But the court also noted that with a variety of experiments under way to try to achieve diversity through alternative means, schools should periodically review whether consideration of race was still necessary for reaching a critical mass of minority students on campus.

Since the mid-1990s, nine states have engaged in such experiments. Seven states have banned affirmative action in public- university admissions: Arizona, California, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, and Washington states that account for 28 percent of US high school students, according to a new report by The Century Foundation, a think tank in Washington and New York. And both Texas and Georgia have had periods of time where lower courts ruled out the consideration of race.

One common alternative has been to give weight to applicants who come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Another is to set up ties with K-12 schools to create a pipeline for and help prepare disadvantaged students. In three of the states, the top universities have also dropped legacy preferences for children of alumni, which tend to benefit whites, the Century Foundation report notes.

The impact on underrepresented-minority enrollment at selective institutions has varied, with some still struggling with significant declines while others have achieved rates similar to those before the bans.

Universities know they can ... create that diversity without using race; its just more difficult and more expensive, says Richard Kahlenberg, an advocate of income-based integration in education and the main author of the Century Foundation report released last week, A Better Affirmative Action.

Proponents of affirmative action argue that, although its commendable to give more access to people with economic disadvantages, race is still a necessary consideration.

Race matters, says Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. If only low-income students get admissions boosts, that still leaves out middle-class African-Americans, for instance, who may live in the suburbs but still attend disadvantaged schools and experience various forms of discrimination.

Diversity works best when not everybody who is black is poor, which would reinforce stereotypes, Mr. Orfield says. Among the middle class, black students have a different worldview on balance ... than typical white students on everything from history to justice to economics, he says.

At the University of Texas at Austin (UT), policies such as admitting the top 10 percent of high school classes and taking socioeconomics into account drew roughly the same percentages of African-Americans (3 to 5 percent) and Latinos (13 to 15 percent) to campus as before affirmative action was banned. After UT reinstated race as one of many factors in 2005, the percentages climbed slightly for African-Americans and rose several points for Latinos, according to The Century Foundation.

At the same time, the growth of Latinos graduating from high school in Texas makes it difficult to tell how much impact the admissions policies really had.

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