The long-running battle over affirmative action in college admissions is back before the U.S. Supreme Court, where it really doesnt belong.
The court, after all, decided less than a decade ago in a Michigan case that colleges and universities could not reward minority applicants based solely on race, but could, in the admissions process, take race into account as one factor in considering individual applications, to assure a diverse student body. Selective institutions of higher education, including those in the UNC system, have been operating under that fair and sensible guidance ever since.
But a new case from Texas plus the replacement of Justice Sandra Day OConnor, a pivotal figure in the 2003 decision, by Justice Samuel Alito caused the court to look anew at racial preferences, with an eye to further scaling them back or eliminating them entirely. Opponents of affirmative action at least affirmative action based on race keep asking, as Chief Justice John Roberts did at oral arguments on the Texas case last week, when the logical endpoint of its use will arrive.
Its a fair question, but the wisest answer continues to be: not yet.
The current case before the Supreme Court, brought by Abigail Fisher, who was denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin and has since graduated from LSU, involves the court in Texas odd amalgam of an admissions system. Under it the Austin campus admitted any applicant in the top 10 percent (since reduced to 8 percent) of his or her high school class. Fishers record fell outside the 10 percent marker but her application was considered, nonetheless, in a follow-on process in which race was one factor. Fisher is white, and she says she would have been admitted if she were a favored minority.
The 10 percenters
It needs to be said here that the Texas 10 percent system, instituted to promote diversity without overt consideration of race, is in good part an exercise in cynicism. Yes, it produces a racially diverse student body, but mainly because so many Texas high schools remain, in effect, segregated by race. Surely thats not the way to go.
Yet Fishers lawyers are basically asking the court to withdraw its approval of race-conscious admissions policies, with something like the top 10 percent plan waiting in the wings as a possible alternative.
Opposition to changing the rules the court set in 2003 comes from many large corporations, which value a diverse workforce of college graduates, and from colleges and universities. Notable among them is UNC-Chapel Hill, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Fisher case. The brief argues convincingly that moving to a top 10 percent system would be deeply problematic.
It notes that The UNC Admissions Office has calculated the impact of such a change on the class entering the University in the fall of 2012. Drawing on extensive, individualized data on all high school seniors across the State, it calculates that imposing a Top Ten Percent plan in 2012 would increase by only 1% the overall percentage of non-white and underrepresented students who would enroll at Chapel Hill (from 15% to 16%). Yet that choice would simultaneously depress almost every other indicator of academic quality. For example, average entering SATs in the fall of 2012 would decline by more than 50 points, from 1317 to 1262.
Formula for decline
Thats not just a decline on paper. Its likely that UNC Chapel Hill would have to add remedial-type classes, and even then many students admitted solely on the basis of class rank would not succeed academically.
In addition, a top 10 percent policy would be devastating to the admissions chances of students who fall outside that parameter. According to the brief, ... a non-top 10% student who applied to the University would see her chances of admission reduced from 31% (under UNCs present individualized, holistic system) to 10% (under a Top Ten Percent system). The unfairness of this would be especially acute for seniors in the states many large, highly competitive urban and suburban high schools.
If we nonetheless value, as we should, significant racial diversity on campus along with other kinds of differences, including the presence of students of varied economic circumstances, talents, geographic origins (and even alumni connections) the least unfair method is an individualized evaluation of each candidate much like the one the Supreme Court affirmed in 2003.
The court was right then, and would be right now to leave the law where it is.