The use of race as a factor in a holistic admissions strategy has been upheld as constitutional by the United States Supreme Court in the landmark case of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin.
UT Austin creates classes of students from a variety of ethnic and economic backgrounds by using race, and the state’s Top 10% Rule—a public university initiative that grants automatic admission to students ranking in the top percentage of their graduating high school class. It’s now been modified to include 7 percent to 8 percent of these students.
Abigail Fisher first filed a suit against UT Austin in 2008 after her application for admittance was denied. The case takes specific issue with how the university distributes the remaining seats after the Top 10% quota is filled, as UT Austin will consider race alongside extracurricular activities, test scores and other factors in admission decisions.
After losing the case at the district level, Fisher appealed to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and then the U.S. Supreme Court, which kicked the case back to the 5th Circuit. The plea was again denied and the case was finally argued before the Supreme Court.
The decision is a win for UT Austin and higher education as a whole, says Gregory Vincent, the university’s vice president for diversity and community engagement.
While some schools have gone race-neutral in their admissions, others use proxies such as zip code and time of application in the pursuit of a diverse student body. But neither factor successfully generates true diversity in college admissions, Vincent says.
“We need inter- and intra-group diversity. If we rely on zip codes, and favor those poorer neighborhoods, then we would admit only poor black and brown students—how does that help to break down stereotypes?” says Vincent. “We need [minority] students from all over the spectrum to achieve diversity: legacy, first generation, those with professional backgrounds.”
This isn’t the first time UT has defended its use of race in admissions. From 1996 to 2003, UT Austin could not use an affirmative action strategy to review applicants, due to the Hopwood v. Texas case.
During this time, the Top 10% Rule was created in pursuit of fairer admissions at Texas higher ed institutions. However, it did not do enough to make college more accessible for underrepresented students, according to David Gans, civil rights director with the Constitutional Accountability Center, a progressive think tank and law firm.
“The Top 10% Plan led to more diversity than before, but it works against the background of heavy racial segregation in Texas high schools, and it in itself is a race-conscious choice,” says Gans. “Like other selections that are purely merit-based, it looks at students only from an academic perspective.”
This is problematic, as these standards favor more affluent students who may have access to ACT and SAT prep courses, says Dana Strait, a consultant with the research team at the Education Advisory Board (EAB), a membership-based firm that helps college leaders solve academic and administrative problems.
A 2003 University of Michigan case (Grutter v. Bollinger) upheld the use of race as one of many viable factors in a multifaceted admission strategy, and UT Austin was again able to consider ethnicity while reviewing applicants.
According to UT’s website, undergrad admissions takes roughly 15 factors into account, including awards, family responsibility and work experience.
An fall 2002 analysis of course enrollment demonstrated a lack of what is considered “critical mass” of minority representation on UT Austin’s campus. For example, in classes of five or more students, 52 percent had no African-Americans and 79 percent had one or none.
“We found that the modest use of race was an important part of achieving greater diversity and helped to break down stereotypes that we are dealing with,” says Vincent. “We also needed to address the racial isolation some students were still experiencing in their classes.”
Many people see the Supreme Court decision as a substantial victory in the continuing effort to level the playing field of higher ed admissions.
“The use of race is one factor among many to comport with the constitutional guarantee of equality,” says Gans. “One of the crucial ideas is that we are ensuring pathways of leadership for all different backgrounds.”