Supreme Court ruling a green light for affirmative action 'experimentation'

By upholding a University of Texas admissions policy, the Supreme Court has boosted those seeking to look at diversity more deeply. 

Eric Gay/AP/File
University of Texas students walk past the university's iconic tower in Austin in this 2012 file photo.

Thursday’s Supreme Court decision upholding race as a factor in the admissions policy of the University of Texas at Austin came as a relief for affirmative-action supporters. 

After decades of challenges, colleges that have significant competition in the admissions process can now more confidently move forward with narrowly tailored policies to promote racial diversity.

But with growing concern on campuses nationwide about whether colleges are actually inclusive – and not just diverse – the high court ruling is being seen by many higher education and civil rights leaders as a jumping off point to pushing deeper. 

The need, they say, is not just to provide greater access for a wider array of disadvantaged students. It also involves creating more meaningful opportunities for students to actually engage with one another to become better problem-solvers.

“Creating a diverse campus is a first step,” said Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, in a statement Thursday. Preparing “students to work productively across difference … is the next critical frontier in higher education’s long-term efforts to make excellence inclusive.”

The 4-to-3 Supreme Court ruling upheld the University of Texas’s admission program because it considered race to advance concrete educational goals such as “ending stereotypes, promoting ‘cross-racial understanding,’ preparing students for ‘an increasingly diverse workforce and society,’ and cultivating leaders with ‘legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry,’ ” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority.

The decision is not necessarily the last word, opponents say. Legal challenges to policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina are under way. And because the ruling was specific to the University of Texas, “there’s plenty of room for further litigation,” says Joshua Dunn, a political scientist at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs.

Moreover, many opponents have taken their cause to the ballot box: Eight states currently ban a consideration of race in public college admissions.

Diversity 101

To supporters, however, the ruling creates the space to further explore the importance of diversity in education.

The court acknowledged that “to create a diverse place where students can learn and [become] the next generation of leaders, requires … some experimentation, it requires careful analysis -- and universities need a little bit of space” to do that, said Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, in a conference call with reporters.

For his part, University of Texas student body president Kevin Helgren has no doubt that diversity on campus has enhanced the quality of his education.

In one class that dealt with controversial current topics, the diversity of the students – racially, ethnically, religiously, and by sexual orientation – broadened his worldview, he says in a phone interview.

“I remember talking about the prison system in the United States, and a student of African-American descent talked to us about the disproportionate representation of people of color incarcerated. That’s something I knew … but listening to him really kind of humanized this notion to me,” Mr. Helgren says.

Helgren, due to graduate next year, is white, and was admitted to the school because he was in the top 10 percent of his high school class. That automatic policy accounts for about 75 percent of admissions at the university. Another 25 percent are admitted through “holistic review,” which takes into account factors ranging from essays and leadership to race and the language spoken at home.

“I’ve seen white and black friends make their first good friends of different races here,” said David McDonald Jr., an African-American member of the class of 2016 and former Black Student Alliance President, in a statement. “That’s what college is all about – expanding your horizons and learning about people.”

Many employers say college students aren’t being exposed to enough diversity or given enough tools to benefit from it.

According to a 2014 report by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, only 21 percent of employers said that recent college graduates were prepared in terms of awareness and experience of diverse cultures.

Different kinds of diversity 

Some analysts suggest that racial diversity isn’t enough.

“Affluent students currently outnumber economically disadvantaged students by 24:1 at selective colleges and more action is needed to address this gap,” said Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at The Century Foundation, in a statement.

Racial and socioeconomic diversity are distinct and one cannot be used as a proxy for the other, data show.

A study of class-based admissions systems in Israel and race-based affirmative action in the United States found that, if the US adopted the Israeli approach, racial minority representation would decline by about one third.

Universities should pursue both kinds of diversity, says Sigal Alon, a University of Tel Aviv sociologist and author of the study, in a phone interview. “The discontent with racial preferences would be much smaller if other groups would benefit from affirmative action and not just minorities,” she says.

The University of Texas admissions policy upheld Thursday includes socioeconomics as one factor in its holistic review.

“It’s important for us not to continue to pit socioeconomic diversity and racial diversity as a zero-sum calculation. And in fact you can achieve both,”said Janai Nelson, associate director-counselof the NAACP LDF, during a press call.

Material from Associated Press was used in this report.

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