The constitutionality of race-conscious college admissions is being brought to the Supreme Court this fall, thrusting a debate over affirmative action in higher education back onto the national stage.
What is sure to become one of the most important cases on the court’s docket this term, the case, Fisher v. University of Texas, comes less than a decade after the court’s most recent ruling regarding affirmative action in higher education in Grutter v. Bollinger in which the majority decided colleges and universities could take race into consideration in a holistic approach in the interest of academic diversity.
The plaintiff in the new case, Abigail Fisher, argues that the University of Texas denied her admission because of her race.
At the University of Texas, students in the top 10% of their high school class are automatically admitted (this happens at all Texas public universities) into the public university system — a race neutral approach that partially increases racial diversity because many Texas high schools are racially homogenous. The remaining 90% — such as Fisher — are entered into a separate applicant pool in which race is taken into consideration.
Fisher believes the admissions process at the University of Texas is racially discriminatory.
Anthony Berni, a recent graduate of Iona College, agrees.
“I believe affirmative action is a form of racial discrimination and should be abolished,” the 21-year-old from Yonkers, N.Y. said. “Applications to college should be racially blind because affirmative action unfairly discriminates against students who are not of minority status.”
Berni questions the need for affirmative action policies when an increased number of minority students can be admitted to college through racially blind admissions processes.
“Affirmative action policies being in place only serve those who otherwise would not have gotten into the schools on merit alone and thus don’t deserve to be there in the first place,” he said.
Unlike Fisher and Berni, however, Keegan Fairfield, a senior at the University of Vermont, praises the system established by the University of Texas due to its commitment to promoting a diverse educational experience and providing opportunities to minority students.
“I think it’s a brilliant system because it relies on homogeneity,” said the 21-year-old from Telluride, Colo. “The UT system encompasses all of affirmative action, the quantitative aspect of the ‘top ten’ because you’re relying on the racial sectors of Texas and the qualitative aspect in the bottom 90%.”
Fairfield believes the use of affirmative action by colleges and universities is essential because diversity plays an integral role in providing a well rounded education for students.
“[Affirmative action policies] enrich the educational experience for all students in that when you have folks from different socioeconomic, racial and geographic areas, it incites debates that would never happen in a homogeneous group of students,” he said.
Affirmative action has also allowed racial minorities to find success through a college education, Fairfield explained. “We’ve institutionalized racism in so many aspects of this country — voter ID laws, the war on drugs — so in order to give minorities a way to succeed, I think this program is necessary.”
Christopher Riano, a law professor specializing in constitutional law and higher education law at Columbia University, says the relationship between the court and higher education has always been deferential with a long history of courts allowing colleges and universities to craft their own systems with their own policies in terms of admissions, judicial systems, etc. and it will be interesting to see how the court decides in the Fisher case.
The court has the ability to pick and choose what they like and what they don’t like about the policy at the University of Texas, Riano went on to explain.
If the court does not uphold the affirmative action policy in full, “will it be a blanket issue, where the court decides you can no longer use personal characteristics like race, gender or ethnicity, or will it decide you can only no longer use race? Depending how the court rules, that will have the most impact,” Riano said.
The court is set to hear arguments on Fisher on October 10.
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