Office of Planning and Budgeting

Supreme Court Case Calls into Question the Use of Race in Higher Ed Admissions

On October 10th, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas (UT)—the first Supreme Court case on the use of race in higher education admissions since Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003. The case asks that the Court either declare UT’s admissions policy to be in violation of Grutter v. Bollinger or entirely overrule their 2003 decision that race could play a limited role in universities’ admissions policies. An overruling of Grutter could effectively end affirmative action at public universities.

Although around 80 percent of UT’s admissions decisions are made via a unique, race-blind method called the Top 10 Percent Plan, the case challenges whether UT’s “holistic file review” system (which is used to fill the remaining 20 percent of openings) exceeds their right to consider race and ethnicity. Under the holistic file review system, admissions officers and hired readers assess the full application submitted, reading essays and recommendation letters, assessing writing skills, and importantly, seeking to understand the context in which SAT scores and GPAs were earned. Race is one of many contextual factors considered. The UW adopted a race-neutral version of the holistic approach when it became clear, several years after the passage of I-200, that a composite score admissions platform (which essentially scores applicants based on GPA and SAT or ACT scores) insufficiently accommodated diverse applicants. Over time, the UW’s holistic review, even without a race factor, was found to significantly increase the diversity of entering classes.

In fact, schools across the country use similar systems to foster diversity in their schools, and many have voiced their avid support for UT. In August, the American Council on Education filed a brief on behalf of itself and 39 higher education groups backing UT. The Obama administration also filed a UT-supportive brief, as did a group of U.S. senators, and a number of states (including California, where voters barred public universities from considering race in admissions).

However, last Friday, opponents of UT’s holistic review caught a break when the Brookings Institute, a nonprofit public policy organization based in D.C., presented new research suggesting that eliminating the consideration of race would have a lesser impact on minority students than some believe. In addition, their research implies that under affirmative action, minority students may actually achieve less academic success than they would otherwise. The studies received criticism for their methodology and lack of peer-review, but have still caught the attention of the media and public.

Debates will likely continue through next month. If the Court rules in favor of Fisher, the use of holistic review across the country may be called into question, although the UW’s race-neutral model should be significantly less vulnerable.

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