Right to autonomy: Should colleges or courts decide how to seek diversity?

In 2008, Abigail Fisher, a white senior in high school from Houston, TX, sent in her college application to the flagship campus of the Texas university system--the University of Texas at Austin.  Competition was stiff. Students entering through the university's Top 10 program, a mechanism that granted automatic admission to any teen who graduated in the upper 10 percent of his or her high school class, claimed 92 percent of the in-state spots. Fisher failed to graduate in the top 10 percent of her class, meaning she had to compete for the limited remaining spaces. The university offered provisional admission to some students with lower test scores and grades than Fisher--five of whom were black or Latino. Forty-two were white. One hundred sixty eight black and Latino students with grades as good as or better than Fisher's were also denied entry into the university that year.

Fisher sued UT Austin for race discrimination, blaming its affirmative action program, which considers race and ethnicity in a “holistic review” of applicants.

Is race conscious admissions "discrimination"?

In, 2013, Fisher's lawsuit came before the U.S. Supreme Court. At the time, the court issued a 7-1 decision vacating the lower court Fifth Circuit ruling that had upheld the admissions program and remanding the case to the Fifth Circuit for further consideration. The ruling reaffirmed that public colleges could consider race in admissions, but only under strict conditions. The Supreme Court instructed the Fifth Circuit to review the case anew and to apply stricter scrutiny to its evaluation of the program.

Last summer, following the Supreme Court’s instruction, the Fifth Circuit court ruled again in favor of the institution. Fisher subsequently filed an appeal of the decision putting the Supreme Court in the position of once again considering race-conscious admissions. Oral arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin (Fisher II) begin December 9th

Last week, AACRAO, along with the College Board, the Law School Admission Council (LSAC), and the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), filed an amicus brief backing the right of colleges to consider race in admissions. The brief focuses more on the right of colleges to set their own admissions standards than on issues of race. It makes a point to highlight the educational value of diversity to all students, rather than as a benefit to those students whose applications might receive a boost based on their race or ethnicity. In short, the brief backs the concept of holistic admissions which encompasses affirmative action.

Building a case for holistic admissions.

Holistic admissions is an individualized way of assessing an applicant's capabilities with consideration given to experiences, attributes (to include race), as well as academic metrics. Race and ethnicity are not the focus of a holistic review. 

Using holistic assessments, an institution is able to determine how the individual might add value to the entire student body. The joint brief notes that without the right to consider race in admissions, officers would not only be missing relevant information, they would also be losing a major aspect of their institutional autonomy. It argues that colleges should have the right to decide how to adopt holistic admissions as they see fit.

“In schools large and small, urban and rural, research and land-grant (and more), admission decisions are grounded in the unique history, character, aims and vision that define an institution,” the brief states. “Institutions routinely adapt holistic review to make it their own, as a natural extension of institutional mission and a tool to achieve the institution’s educational goals.”

Can institutions attain diversity without race conscious admissions?

Many say, “Yes.”

Strategies such as targeted high school recruiting, first generation college student support, non-traditional student programs, and legacy entry have all been shown to work. For example, California ordered its universities to stop considering race in admissions in 1996, after residents voted into law Prop 209, which banned the use of affirmative action in admissions decisions. Soon after, the percentage of minority first-year students at UC’s most competitive campuses—Berkeley and UCLA—fell sharply. The percentage of first-year African American freshmen at UC-Berkeley dropped from 6.7 percent in 1995 to 3.7 percent in 1998, and at UCLA from 7.4 percent to 3.5.  In the same years, the percentage of Latino and Chicano freshman at UC-Berkeley fell from 17 percent to 8 percent, and from 22 percent to 11 percent at UCLA.

Then the University of California established the Early Academic Outreach Program (EAOP). EAOP is not a recruitment effort, but rather aims to increase the number of students from underserved schools--often schools with large minority populations--and communities who have the opportunity to achieve a college education at any college. With the focus on helping underachieving students gain admission to college, the numbers of Latino, Chicano and African American students enrolled system-wide at the University of California are on the rise. The percentage of Latino and Chicano resident freshmen admitted to UC increased, from 11.9 percent in 1998, two years after the affirmative action ban, to 27.6 in 2013. The increase of African American resident freshmen admits was more modest, from 3 percent, in 1998, to 4.2 percent in 2013.

So, should colleges or courts decide how your institution can seek diversity? We may soon find out.