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
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
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. …