In its 2003 case Grutter v. Bollinger, the United States Supreme Court ruled that colleges and universities could consider race and ethnicity in their admissions decisions for at least 25 years. But a move by the court on Tuesday could ultimately reverse that decision — ending race-based affirmative action policies at Yale and other higher education institutions across the country.
The nation’s highest court announced Tuesday it would hear Fisher v. University of Texas — a case filed by a white student, Abigail Fisher, who said she was denied admission to the University of Texas’s Austin campus because of her race. Since the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger ruling, education experts said the argument over affirmative action policies at colleges and universities has calmed, but news of the court’s decision to hear another affirmative action case has reignited debate between supporters and opponents of the policy. Since 2003, the court’s ideological center has shifted to the right, placing the future of race-based affirmative action into question, education and law experts said.
As Yale takes race into consideration in its admissions process, it is possible that the court’s decision could affect the University’s admission policies.
“There is value in having a class that is widely diverse and represents different racial, ethnic and religious groups,” University President Richard Levin said. “We’re bound by the law as it stands — Yale has practiced affirmative action in admissions since the 1960s and will continue to do so as long as it is consistent with the law of the United States.”
Other education leaders, including Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, have taken a strong stance in support of affirmative action admissions policies. Bollinger called the court’s Tuesday decision “ominous” and said “it threatens to undo several decades of effort within higher education,” according to a Feb. 22 article in The New York Times.
Fisher’s argument against affirmative action is not the only one of its kind currently under scrutiny. Last August, an Asian-American student filed complaints against Harvard and Princeton alleging that, despite performing at the top of his class, he was denied admission to the universities on account of his race. The student’s claim is currently being investigated by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Fisher’s case and complaints like it claim that affirmative action policies qualify as “reverse discrimination” against students of certain racial or ethnic backgrounds.
David Petersam, president of Virginia-based higher education consulting group Admissions Consultants, said data from quantifiable college admissions metrics — such as high school transcripts and standardized testing scores — indicate that it is more difficult on average for students of some racial backgrounds to gain admittance to competitive colleges compared to students of other backgrounds. According to a 2009 study by Bloomberg News, Asian-American applicants needed a score of 1550 out of 1600 on the SAT exam to compete with white applicants scoring 1410 and black applicants scoring 1100.
“Reverse discrimination is absolutely an issue in college admissions,” said Irena Smith, a former Stanford University admissions officer who now runs her own admissions consulting group. “Especially at the nation’s top schools, first generation Indian-Americans or Asian-Americans are overrepresented in the applicant pools and they feel that they are being edged out because of their racial background. This is a completely justified complaint.”
But Petersam and Smith said it would be “impossible” for the Supreme Court ruling to change the admissions process drastically. Because most universities use a “holistic decision” approach, in which admissions officers consider a host of factors including socioeconomic background, access to opportunities and race when evaluating college applications, the decision process is very murky and difficult to disentangle. Smith added that these criteria are not easily separable, and race cannot be singled out as the ultimate reason why someone is or is not accepted to a college.
Petersam said that aside from GPA and test scores, none of the other college admissions decision factors are easily quantifiable, making it even harder for individual students to prove that they have been victimized by raced-based affirmative action.
“It would be ridiculous if there weren’t charges of reverse discrimination, and I think [eliminating affirmative action] would help pacify some of the kids and their parents,” Smith said. “But the process is so big and has so many parts that is impossible to legislate.”
Richard Sander, a professor at the UCLA School of Law whose areas of specialization include affirmative action, said he was not surprised to learn Tuesday that the court will revisit the issue. Sander said the Grutter v. Bollinger ruling in favor of affirmative action has not panned out in practice the way justices originally hoped it would, as it has become a mechanical calculation rather than a more fluid part of a holistic approach. He said colleges often manipulate statistics on the racial breakdown of their student bodies to appear to have a more diverse community than they actually do. But socioeconomic stratification at the college level has not noticeably improved since the 2003 ruling, Sander said. Students within the top 10 percent of the nation’s income distribution generally receive 60 percent of the spots at elite schools, he added.
Sander said the court’s decision to hear the case was also unsurprising given the relatively conservative bench: Since the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger ruling, five conservative justices have been added to the court. He added that Justice Anthony Kennedy will likely be “a critical vote” in the final decision.
“Kennedy has been skeptical of affirmative action in the past, but he has also demonstrated a hesitance to make sweeping changes and precedents,” Sander said. “The outcome is not predictable at all.”
Sander said the court ruling will most likely be one of three outcomes. One, the court could find that the University of Texas was not acting in accordance with the Grutter v. Bollinger decision, thereby upholding the 2003 ruling. A second course of action that the court could take would be rewriting the Grutter v. Bollinger principles in a way that translates into clear guidelines so universities can tell when they are in compliance with the law, he said. Alternatively, Sander said, the court could decide to strike down affirmative action in college admissions altogether.
Jeffery Brenzel, dean of undergraduate admissions, did not respond to a request to comment on the role race plays in Yale’s admissions decisions.
Justice Elena Kagan disqualified herself from the court’s hearing of Fisher v. University of Texas because she had previously worked on the case as solicitor general.