Affirmative action in higher education has been a hotly contested issue in courts for decades, and new discussions on the issue have been sparked as the country awaits a Supreme Court decision in Fisher v. University of Texas-Austin any day now. "How" and "why" affirmative action should be implemented has been debated since its inception, and many wonder whether affirmative action concerning race is still necessary in the 21st century.
The current Supreme Court cases in discussion, Fisher v. University of Texas-Austin and the most recently announced case involving the Michigan school system called Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, could have the most groundbreaking rulings regarding affirmative action in higher education to date. These cases have the potential to overturn a ruling in favor of affirmative action and set a new precedent for how applicants are evaluated in the admissions process.
A Historical Precedent
The issue of affirmative action in higher education has been debated in courts since Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal for any programs receiving federal financial assistance to discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, or sex. As a result, all public universities in the nation were banned from denying students on the basis of race, with private universities generally following this procedure as well.
Concerned that a large number of minority groups were being underrepresented in their universities, schools began constructing programs to create more opportunities in higher education for groups historically excluded.
In 1978, the Supreme Court case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke established the basis for affirmative action as it is currently understood. In this case, Allan Bakke, a white male, applied to the University of California-Davis Medical School and was denied. Bakke filed suit against the school, claiming he was denied because of admissions policies that favored certain races. Up until that point, the school set aside 16 seats out of 100 available for specific underrepresented minority applicants and established separate admissions criteria for those candidates.
In the end, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Bakke, claiming no institution receiving government funding could exclude a candidate from admissions consideration solely on the basis of race.
However, it also affirmed that race could be one of many factors in admissions decisions, if it was used for the purpose of fixing under-representation and exclusion of certain minorities in higher education and fields like medicine.
In 2003, Grutter v. Bollinger came before the Supreme Court. When Barbara Gutter applied to the University of Michigan Law School and was denied, she claimed this was because she was Caucasian. Michigan's Law School did seek to admit underrepresented minority students because, much like UC-Davis' Medical School, it believed having a diverse student body would positively affect the character of their school and the law profession. Michigan won this case, and affirmative action was sustained.
The presiding Justice at the time of Grutter v. Bollinger, Sandra Day O'Connor, stated that while affirmative action should not be a permanent status in this country, colorblind admissions policies were still ahead of their time at least for another 25 years. However, less than a decade later, Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action and Fisher v. University of Texas-Austin could shake that previous decision.
In November of 2006, a measure was approved by 58 percent of Michigan voters that outlawed affirmative action on the basis of race in admissions and government hiring. Affirmative action supporters immediately challenged the decision, and the appeals court ruled in favor of affirmative action. This dispute has led to the most recent Supreme Court case between Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette and the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action.
Fisher v. University of Texas-Austin was brought to the Supreme Court in October of 2012. Abigail Fisher applied to the University of Texas-Austin, her first-choice school, for admission in fall 2008. When she was denied admission, Fisher decided to take UT-Austin to court arguing their "Top Ten Plan" discriminated against her and allowed less qualified students to be admitted because of race.
Through its "Top Ten Plan," UT-Austin admits the top 10 percent of each high school class in Texas. Typically, the majority of students in each freshmen class at the school gain admissions through this system. Fisher was just shy of her high school class' top 10 percent, and, as a result, she was considered in a larger applicant pool. Ultimately, Fisher believes that UT's "Top Ten Plan" creates a diverse student body without the need for affirmative action, and that applicants with fewer merit-based qualifications than she had were admitted solely because of race.
If the Court Rules in Favor of Affirmative Action
If UT-Austin and the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action win, these cases will uphold the current precedent regarding affirmative action, and reaffirm the current importance of considering race in admissions. While quotas will still be illegal, schools with specific admissions programs meant to diversify their student body will continue to be protected by the law.
Ultimately, the court will be stating that there is a benefit and a need for sustaining diversity within student bodies, as well as government bodies, through affirmative action, and that without this policy, underrepresented groups will suffer and be prohibited from educational and professional achievement.
Many will continue to question how much longer affirmative action based on race is necessary in admissions, and there will no doubt be another case questioning affirmative action's place in higher education in the coming years.
If The Court Approves Measures to Overturn Affirmative Action
Justice Sonia Sotomayer, a Princeton graduate and self-proclaimed example of successful affirmative action, said regarding this case, "At what point -- when -- do we stop deferring to the university's judgment that race is still necessary? That's the bottom line of this case."
If Abigail Fisher wins, the courts will establish a new precedent in which it is unconstitutional to hold race over merit in admissions, and may declare the consideration of race in admissions practices illegal entirely.
If Bill Schuette is also successful, Michigan will uphold its law banning race as a primary consideration in government employment and college admissions, which could dictate similar initiatives in more states. Affirmative action policies at colleges and universities across the country could very well be discontinued, and schools will have to reevaluate strategies to diversify their student bodies. Colleges may substitute affirmative action of race with emphasizing diversity in socioeconomic status, ethnicity, religion, first-generation-in-college status, and/or geographical location when admitting students. No longer would students identify their race on college applications, and the makeup of many student bodies may change considerably as a result.
Perceptions of what characteristics should be standard in diversity will continue to change, and the diversity versus merit debate will continue far beyond the outcomes of these trials.
IvyWise counselors will be following these cases closely well past their decisions, as they may substantially impact admissions strategies for students.
Whether the importance of affirmative action is reiterated yet again, or taken out of admissions practices completely, this case will weigh heavily on how applicants are assessed for undergraduate, graduate, and professional school admissions across the United States.