This fall the Supreme Court will return to an issue it last discussed in 2003: affirmative action in university admissions. Fisher v. The University of Texas at Austin involves a white student who, after being denied admission, claimed that the University’s consideration of race in the admissions process violated her civil and constitutional rights. Although the use of affirmative action does imply preferential admission of minority students in some cases, the long-term social benefits of affirmative action policies outweigh isolated individual grievances.
Since the popularization of affirmative action policies in the 1960s, the Supreme Court has set a number of precedents in similar cases. In the late 1970s, the court ruled in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke that while race may be considered in admissions, the use of a strict racial quota system violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. In the 2003 case Grutter v. Bollinger, the Supreme Court upheld the use of race as one of the factors that universities may consider when making admissions decisions.
Fisher supporters contest the ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger and argue that affirmative action policies lead to “reverse discrimination” in which white applicants are rejected in favor of minority students with lower grades or test scores.
This position fails to account for the widespread structural disadvantages faced by many minority students. From inadequate schools to discrimination and financial barriers, many minority students face a range of obstacles that are often overlooked simply because they are so strongly embedded in the social structure. Recent research has identified a number of problems with relying on entrance exam scores to determine an applicant’s suitability. For example, the correlation between entrance exam scores and college performance is shaky at best, suggesting that students who take advantage of the opportunities afforded by universities can outperform those with high academic achievement in high school.
Advocates of “financial affirmative action” push for color-blind consideration of economic disadvantages in university admissions. Promising students from struggling families would be awarded admission and financial aid regardless of their race. This position seems like a reasonable way to help disadvantaged students while transcending racial categorization. However, as much as we would like to believe that race is no longer a determining factor in American society, the financial disparities between races prove that it is.
Economic disadvantage and race are not independent variables and shouldn’t be considered as such. For now, we must continue considering race in college admissions in order to narrow those economic gaps. If it achieves its goals, this kind of affirmative action will not be necessary forever.
The on-campus diversity fostered by affirmative action also encourages students of different races to get to know each other and develop a broader world view. Universities understand the importance of racial and cultural diversity to enhancing their students’ learning experience, and affirmative action policies allow admissions officers to ensure that each incoming class has a fair representation of racial groups.
Diversity is also an attractive quality to prospective students, and university reviews often include an assessment of racial and cultural variety. College Prowler, a student-based directory of colleges and universities throughout the country, gives UT an A for diversity in contrast to Texas Tech’s B- and Texas A&M’s C+. Such rankings reflect favorably upon the University’s efforts to create an inclusive on-campus atmosphere.
Affirmative action policies such as the one in place at UT benefit society by extending opportunities for higher education and slowly bridging the socioeconomic gaps between races. In deciding Fisher v. The University of Texas at Austin, the Supreme Court should take into account the far-reaching implications that race still carries in America as well as the long-term benefits that affirmative action policies confer upon society and the way in which it is structured.
Oliver is an English and sociology freshman.