By Erin Rode
If you’re a young person who has applied to college in recent years, chances are you are familiar with the term “affirmative action.”
The college admissions practice, which encourages diversity in student bodies, has long been a point of political dispute frequently up for debate. The policy was first upheld in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke back in 1978, when the court ruled that race could be one of several factors in colleges’ admissions decisions. In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court again upheld affirmative action admissions policies as furthering a legitimate interest, diversity, in Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger.
The current objection to the practice lies in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. Plaintiff Abigail Fisher, a white woman now in her late twenties, first sued the university in 2008, claiming she was discriminated against because of her race.
Race plays a role in just a limited number of admissions decisions for UT Austin. Approximately 80 percent of the school’s incoming class comes from the Texas Top Ten Percent Plan. Under this plan, Texas high school students who graduate in the top ten percent of their class—regardless of race—must gain admission to one of the state’s public colleges and universities.
The remaining 20 percent of UT Austin’s incoming class is determined through a review of students’ talents, leadership, family background, and race.
Fisher claims that under this process, UT Austin admitted nonwhite students with lower grades and fewer extracurricular activities. Fisher herself graduated with a 3.59 GPA, and was involved in orchestra, math competitions, and volunteer work.
A shift in the Supreme Court’s makeup could also impact this decision. During the slate of affirmative action decisions in 2003, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor provided the swing vote in favor of upholding race-conscious admissions policies, writing the majority opinion. Since then, Samuel Alito, who typically is against affirmative action, has replaced O’Connor. Kennedy is the new swing vote on the topic; he has expressed discomfort with race-conscious admissions.
Although the Supreme Court may have mixed views, studies have suggested that most Americans support programs that promote diversity on college campuses. According to a 2009 CBS News/New York Times poll, the majority of Americans support race-conscious admissions policies.
The Fisher decision could have a huge impact on young people not just at the University of Texas but also all over America. If the Supreme Court declares affirmative action unconstitutional, universities will struggle further to admit and educate a truly diverse student body. Research has shown that race-neutral admissions policies are ineffective in forming diverse campuses. A study by UCLA School of Law found that, after race-neutral admissions system enrollment of African American and American Indian students fell by more than 70 percent. As the most diverse generation in history, Millennials stand to be greatly impacted should the court strike down affirmative action policies.