On Feb. 20, the Supreme Court announcedthat it would hear Fisher v. University of Texas, the most recent affirmative action case to be reviewed by the Supreme Court since the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger case involving the University. With conservative Supreme Court justices in the majority, it’s likely that the court will overrule the Grutter decision, which affirmed the constitutionality of considering race as a factor in college admissions. However, to do so would be a grave mistake on the part of the court and would undoubtedly deprive schools, like our own, of the diverse environment that attracts many of us to the institution in the first place.
The 2003 Supreme Court ruling involved two suits filed against the University concerning its affirmative action policies. In Grutter v. Bollinger, the plaintiff alleged that she was excluded from the University’s Law School because of a policy that considered race in admissions. The second case, Gratz v. Bollinger, was a class action lawsuit challenging the University’s undergraduate point system, which assigned points in favor of an applicant’s racial minority status. Both cases contended that the University’s policies denied equal protection of the law under the 14th Amendment. The court, in Gratz, ultimately found the University’s point admission system unconstitutional, but upheld the constitutionality of the consideration of race as an admissions factor in Grutter.
As a Texas resident and former prospective student of the University of Texas, I am personally familiar not only with the admissions policies of the school, but also with the highly charged opinions regarding those policies. Though I support affirmative action, I disagree with some of the admissions practices of UT’s undergraduate school.
As a race-neutral way of promoting a diverse student body, the Texas Legislature passed a “top 10 percent rule” in 1997. The legislation mandated that every public university in Texas automatically accept high-school students who were in the top 10 percent of their graduating class, regardless of a school’s overall academic performance or of a student’s standardized test scores. (As of 2011, the legislation was modified to require the university to accept only the top 8 percent automatically, thereby freeing spots for students to be admitted under the school’s discretionary admissions).
UT reserves 90 percent of its spots for in-state students, 81 percent of which were comprised of students admitted as part of the top 10 percent rule in 2008. Though the law increased minority presence on campus, it did so only marginally. In 2005, after the Grutter decision, UT altered its admissions criteria for the non-top 10 percent portion of its class to include race as a factor in admissions.
In Fisher, the plaintiff did not challenge the top 10 percent rule — she contended that UT’s consideration of race among the non-top 10 percent applicants is unconstitutional. Fisher attacked UT’s discretionary admissions program but not the top 10 percent rule. In my view, however, it is the top 10 percent rule that needs to be revisited, while the discretionary admissions policy should be upheld.
Not only does the top 10 percent rule discourage students from attending competitive high schools in favor of schools where they could more likely land in the top 10 percent, it also discourages students from taking a challenging course load which might lower their GPAs. The policy also fails to achieve its intended purpose of encouraging diversity on campus.
The entering freshman class of 2004, prior to the addition of the affirmative action component to admissions in 2005, had only 275 African-American students and 1,024 Hispanic students in a class of 6,796 students. In 2008, three years after UT renewed its Grutter-type admissions policy, the enrollment jump to 335 African-American students and 1,228 Hispanic students in the entering freshman class.
The practice of admitting students based solely on their high-school rankings largely ignores the student as an individual. UT’s discretionary admissions process is one that considers a student’s entire academic profile, personality, practices, background, and, yes, race.
In Fisher, the Supreme Court will effectively be ruling on the constitutionality of Grutter-type consideration of race in college admissions. If it invalidates such considerations, racial diversity on this campus and campuses nationwide will be severely impacted for the worse.
In Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s majority opinion in Grutter, she wrote, “We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.” It’s been only nine years since Grutter, and if the minority-population statistics at the UT at Austin are any indication, we have many years to go before achieving meaningful racial diversity in higher education.
Sarah Rohan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.