This week the Supreme Court will find itself facing yet again the question of the use of race in higher education. It is question that the Court failed to definitively answer in 1978 and then again in 2003 and will now try again in 2012. Fisher v. University of Texas Austin however has the makings of a decision that could not only answer the question with finality but effectively bar the use of race in admissions in higher education. While the Court has repeatedly allowed the limited use of race for the purposes of achieving diversity in classes, the record of these programs suggests that this one factor is difficult to confine and tends to overwhelm other considerations. The Court now appears to have the votes to adopt a bright-line rule that ends decades of experimentation with this controversial factor.
While many defend race-conscious admissions in terms of the need for affirmative action to correct historic discrimination, the Supreme Court barred such affirmative action in 1978 in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. Justice Lewis Powell allowed for only a limited use of race for the purpose of achieving “diversity” in classes. This exception however soon swallowed the rule as schools fought to maintain levels of minority students as a diversity rather than an affirmative action program. Many academics privately admit that the real purpose of these programs remains the original affirmative action rationale to ensure greater numbers of minorities in higher education.
At George Washington Law School, we spend a considerable amount of money to recruit top minority students without having the type of score differential reports in the Texas case. This takes money and time but it is well worth it. I happen to believe strongly in the educational value of diversity. I am convinced that my classes are greatly improved from an educational perspective by a more racially diverse class of students. I also see similar benefits from diversity in religion and socio-economic backgrounds. Moreover, race is not always a good criteria for bringing in different social and cultural experiences since many minority students come from elite schools and backgrounds.
The main concern however remains the natural gravitation of diversity programs into de facto quota systems. These cases reflect a tendency to weigh race more and more heavily to achieve greater numbers of minority students rather than spend the money and time to attract more competitive minority students.
The gap in scores among students at Texas will be at the heart of this case. The Texas data on the freshmen (not admitted under the Top Ten Percent Law) show that Asian students had a mean SAT score of 467 points and white students a mean of 390 points above the mean for black students (on a maximum score of 2400). This meant that Asian students scored in the 93rd percentile and whites in the 80th percentile nationally while black students scored in the 52nd percentile. These scores are a verboten subject among academics since they highlight the unfairness to students rejected with much higher scores due to their race.
With race-conscious systems, the concern is that white students are denied any ability to compete on this criteria for admission and must overcome the weight given to it with even higher scores. The discomfort with race-based criteria in educational admissions is reflected on the Court itself. In Grutter v. Bollinger, the Court divided 5-4 on the question in upholding the admissions criteria for Michigan Law School. However, even the author of the 2003 majority opinion, Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, stated that she did not believe the use of race would be acceptable for more than a couple decades more. The Court ruled that it “expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.” O’Connor’s statement was ridiculed by other justices (and others) since the constitutionality of affirmative action should not have an expiration date like one-percent milk. Yet, even under O’Connor’s view, affirmative action would only have an expected life of roughly 15 more years of constitutionality.
What is interesting is that the University of Texas-Austin achieved remarkable levels of minority students under the earlier race-neutral system of admissions. In the year before the school changed to a race-conscious system, Hispanic and African American students constituted a total 21.4% of the entering freshman class. Asian students made up another roughly 18% of the class. This impressive success was achieved in large part by the Texas legislature enacting the 10% Law, which required the University of Texas to admit all Texas high school seniors ranking in the top 10% of their classes. That law not only achieved racial diversity but geographic and economic diversity at the university. For those of us uneasy with the use of race-conscious criteria, that record was encouraging and suggested that it is indeed possible to achieve considerable diversity without the use of race.
However, the university said that this roughly 40% minority rate was not sufficient because it wanted to see a greater percentage in individual programs and classes – requiring an even higher percentage. The school turned back to race-conscious admissions and the federal appellate court upheld the change. The race conscious rules are also likely to result in further discrimination on the basis of race. For example, while Asian Americans are indeed a minority and presumably would bring diversity to a class, they outperform blacks and Hispanics in scores by a significant degree. Their scores are also higher than white students. Thus, there is a growing trend to count the race of Asian students against their admission at some universities. Thus, if you are white or Asian, your performance in school and tests may be effectively negated by the color of your skin.
Under the current system, a student’s race is displayed on the front of their application. Significant numbers of minorities are still admitted under the Top 10 Percent law, but minority students are then given a preference if they do not make that cut based on their race. The result has been to increase minority admissions to over 50 percent of the entering class at UT. The goal and result are the same as the pre-Bakke affirmative action programs. Indeed, in a statement that likely had his lawyers wincing, the UT’s President proudly announced that his incoming classes achievement of 52 percent minority students would finally “reflect the changing demographics of the state” – an apparent reference to the affirmative action rationale.
Universities were given the opportunity to show how race can be used as a limited factor to achieve diversity. The University of Texas system may now offer a majority of the Court the perfect record for achieving what dissenters failed to achieve by one vote in 1978 and 2003. It will be seen by some members as evidence that race-conscious diversity programs tend to gravitate toward quota systems or affirmative action programs. If a majority has finally solidified on the Court, schools would then have to seek diversity (as many law schools do) through scholarships and targeted recruitment. Fisher would become a tale of an opportunity lost and perhaps the start of a new chapter in the struggle of diversity in education.