Why race-conscious admission is wrong

David Player

This Wednesday, lawyers appearing before the U.S. Supreme Court will debate the constitutionality of using race as a factor for admission at public universities. The issue has already provoked a passionate response from those on both sides of the issue. Central to the debate are questions about what the priorities of this university should be: to admit candidates with the strongest academic credentials, to provide the best educational experience, or, as I would argue, to be accessible and provide educational opportunities to as many deserving young Texans as possible? Those objectives are not mutually exclusive, but resolving the issues presented in Abigail Fisher’s case against UT will require us to prioritize one goal over the other.  

Proponents of race-based admissions argue that the practice promotes diversity and thereby enhances the quality of learning at institutions where it takes place. If and to what degree that is true is up for debate, but in the Fisher case that argument is irrelevant. H.B. 588, the bill that established the Top 10 Percent Law, has already done a far better job of promoting diversity at UT-Austin than the University’s holistic review system, which uses race as a factor in admitting students.

The Top 10 Percent Law is the most equitable approach to undergraduate admissions in that it rewards students for obtaining a high level of achievement relative to their peers, or, in other words, doing the most they could with the resources available to them. Critics often  charge that it’s not as difficult to obtain a high class ranking in some schools. That much is true; in 2010, the average SAT score for students admitted under the Top 10 Percent Law was 113 points lower  than that of students admitted under the holistic review process. While standardized test scores may be a factor in the University’s national rankings, they’re not always a good indicator of intelligence or future achievement. In fact, every year from 2000 to 2009, the mean freshman year GPA for students admitted under the Top 10 Percent Law was higher than their holistically-reviewed counterparts. Rather, more often a high SAT or ACT score is simply an indicator of a family who could afford expensive prep courses or private school.

But aside from admitting better students, the Top 10 Percent Law does more to promote diversity at UT than the holistic review system being attacked in the Fisher case. A 2006 study by then-UT history Professor David Montejano found that in its first four years, the law sparked increased enrollment from three key types of schools: urban high schools with predominately minority enrollment, predominately white high schools in rural East Texas, and “mixed-race” rural schools in West and South Texas. Since its enactment, the Top 10 Percent Law has spawned significant increases in enrollment from these traditionally under-represented groups.

Indeed, students admitted under the holistic review system are actually less diverse than those admitted under the Top 10 Percent Law. Blacks and Hispanics constitute a lower percentage of students admitted under the holistic review compared to students admitted under Top 10 Percent Law.

Moreover, in addition to triggering the pending court case, the use of race as an admissions criterion has generated several adverse side effects in our society.

Decisions about who we let into our universities are not made with regards to a class of people, but to individuals, students with a wholly unique set of experiences. To make certain assumptions about an applicant’s income, home life, or education solely based on his or her race is discrimination, pure and simple.

When our government enacts policies that apply different standards to students of different races, it’s institutionalized racism. The implication in such policies is that students of certain races can’t be expected to meet the same academic standards as their peers because of the color of their skin. That assumption is completely untrue and is fundamentally incompatible with our values, both as a school and a nation. Allowing such a system to stay in place is an affront to the thousands of  talented and hardworking students of all colors that have made UT the world-renowned institution that it is today.

In view of the success of the Top 10 Percent Law in opening the doors to under-represented Texans, the University should stop using discriminatory criteria such as race as factors in its holistic admissions system. The Top 10 Percent Law is not without its flaws, the foremost being that it’s a single-criterion admissions system, which can discourage potential applicants from developing as well-rounded individuals. Additionally, many students with strong academic qualifications might not have been admitted without the holistic system currently in place. But recent modifications such as S.B. 175, which capped the percentage of the incoming class admitted under the Top 10 Percent Law at 75 percent, should effectively ensure that those problems don’t overburden our admissions practice. Holistic review should still have a place in UT’s admissions policy, albeit without race as a factor.

Using an applicant’s race as a criterion for admission is a backwards practice that the University should never have resumed after adopting the Top 10 Percent Law.

Unfortunately, it appears that it will now take a Supreme Court case to rectify that error.

Player is a second-year law student from Dallas and a member of the Texas Student Media board.

Printed on Monday, October 8, 2012 as: Why using race in admissions is wrong