Jennifer Gratz remembers the sharp anticipation she felt as a
high school senior, ripping open the admissions letter from her
chosen college - and her swift disappointment.
"Can we sue them?" she gamely quipped to her father. They
managed a laugh. But the joke turned serious when Ms. Gratz, a
National Honor Society student with a 3.79 grade point average,
found that minority students with lower grades and test scores had
been admitted to the same college that rejected her.
So in October, Gratz and another once-rejected student,
Patrick Hamacher, sued the University of Michigan, charging its
admissions policies illegally discriminated on the basis of race.
Both individuals are white.
Their lawsuit was one of three this year, including one this
month, attacking affirmative action policies in admissions. Those
suits follow a landmark federal court ruling last year that made
race preferences in college admissions illegal in Texas, Louisiana,
The impact of this legal trend reaches well beyond those
states and public universities that were sued, observers say. In
fact, the biggest eventual influence may not be on public
universities but on the nation's most elite private colleges and
universities and their carefully cultivated rainbow of racial
"We're watching carefully the development of these cases
across the US and we're concerned," says Willis Stetson Jr., dean
of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League
school in Philadelphia. "We're not viewing this in any cavalier
Frank Wu, a professor at Howard University School of Law in
Washington, agrees there is cause for concern. "The assault on
affirmative action in public universities will almost certainly
affect private universities, including the prestigious 'Ivy League'
universities," he says. "This will happen sooner, not later."
Thanks in part to race-based "tip factors" in admissions
policies, the Ivy League and other highly competitive colleges
nationwide have since the 1960s turned into scholarly enclaves of
ethnic diversity, observers say. But it is something those
colleges must struggle to maintain.
"The top 25 schools are all competing for the same kids,"
says Michele Hernandez, former assistant director of admissions at
Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., who wrote a book on Ivy League
admissions procedures (see story, right). "None of those schools
wants to have only 2 percent black enrollment at the end of the
year. It's not a quota - but Dartmouth just does not want to have 2
percent black enrollment while Harvard has 8 percent."
Such intense competition causes top private colleges to give
breaks to some minority applicants that other applicants do not
get, she says. And Thomas Kane, an economist at Harvard's Kennedy
School of Government who has studied the demand-supply relationship
between colleges and minorities, agrees.
"You will find it is the elite schools, the top 20 percent,
that are doing most of the racial preference," he says. He
attributes this phenomenon to "supply and demand" - a few
high-performing minority college applicants being chased by many
Standing firm at the top
So far the nation's top colleges are standing firm on
affirmative action. As the Association of American Universities
stated recently: There is a "continuing need to take into account a
wide range of considerations - including ethnicity, race, and
gender - as we evaluate the students whom we select for admission."
Private college officials rush to point out, too, that their
admissions procedures are much different than the public
universities that have been sued. They involve individual
assessment that incorporates race as just one factor in an overall
portrait. Also, they point out, they are private.
The issue of federal funds
Yet almost all private colleges also receive millions of
dollars of federally guaranteed student loans and research funding. …