Ruling signals ‘yellow light’ on college affirmative action


SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — In upholding an affirmative action program at the University of Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court provided some reassurance to the minority of the nation’s colleges that continue to consider an applicant’s race in admissions.

But Thursday’s ruling is unlikely to result in an expansion of more explicit race-conscious practices that have fallen out of favor in the past two decades due to shifting public opinion, previous court rulings and state bans for public institutions, legal and education experts said.

In a 4-3 opinion, a court majority held that Texas demonstrated its narrowly tailored policy of looking at race to fill one-quarter of its freshman classes was necessary because a strictly “nonracial approach” failed to produce enough student diversity.

The prevailing justices also noted, though, that higher education leaders must ensure their affirmative action measures are based on strong evidence of their need and efficacy. They also said the measures must be periodically reassessed to determine if they remain valid.

“I think this is a yellow light, a continuing yellow light that says you can proceed here, but you must proceed with caution because these are challenging issues that require intense thought, review and deliberation,” said Arthur Coleman, co-founder of education consulting firm EducationCounsel.

Only one-quarter of the nation’s four-year colleges take into account race and ethnicity when assessing applicants, according to survey data from The College Board, a nonprofit that administers the SAT and AP tests. Highly selective private schools are the most likely to, with 62 percent listing race and ethnicity among their evaluation criteria compared with 21 percent of the most selective public colleges.

The vast majority of the campuses with race-conscious programs — including the eight Ivy League schools and the nation’s service academies — say race is not as important to their deliberations as a student’s grade-point average, personal essay, high school course load and standardized test scores, The College Board data show.

The outcome of the Texas case should be welcome news to schools that use race along with other markers of student diversity, such as parental education or experience overcoming adversity, in deciding whom to admit, American Council on Education general counsel Peter McDonough said.

“Today’s decision recognizes that the formula for educational excellence is elusive, that it changes over time and that it is usually affected by context,” McDonough said. “If you feel as an institution you have gone about this in a defensible, sensible way and you really believe in the value of a diverse learning community, you should feel very good today about what you can accomplish tomorrow.”

The high court repeatedly has held in the years since it outlawed the use of quota systems in 1978 that higher education institutions must have sound reasons for seeking diversity in their student bodies. But it also has limited the methods they can use to bring it about.

In a pair of cases challenging University of Michigan admission policies, court majorities ruled in 2003 that admissions officers can look at race but only as one of several factors determining an individual’s acceptance or rejection and only if no viable alternatives for creating racially diverse classes exist.

Century Foundation Senior Fellow Richard Kahlenberg said the earlier rulings and the unpopularity of race-based policies among the public drove schools to employ alternative strategies, such as recruiting students from low-income families and disadvantaged schools. He worries they might be less motivated to make use of those approaches now.

“Every dollar universities spend on financial aid for needy students is a dollar they can’t spend on boosting their rankings, so they are very reluctant to take on class diversity,” Kahlenberg said. “The one incentive they had was socio-economic affirmative action was a legal way of producing racial diversity, and now I think the Supreme Court has reduced that pressure.”

Eight states — Arizona, California, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Washington — have banned public colleges and universities from practicing affirmative action in any form. Elsewhere around the country, policies vary considerably.

None of the public universities in Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, New Mexico and Wyoming have race-sensitive admission policies, while majorities do in Connecticut, Wisconsin and Virginia.

Even at the University of Texas, Austin, the school at the center of the ruling, three-quarters of the incoming freshman classes are made up of Texas residents who automatically gain admission by graduating at the top of their classes.

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