October 31, 2012

Affirmative Action: Barrier or Benefit?

The admissions community has been receiving much attention and scrutiny in recent months because of the pending Supreme Court case, Fisher vs. University of Texas at Austin. In this case, Plaintiffs Abigail Fisher and Rachel Michalewicz applied at the University of Texas at Austin in 2008 and were denied admission. They claim that they were discriminated against because of their race (they are both white females), saying that less-qualified minority students were granted admission in their stead.

The main point of contention at the center of this case is this; do the University of Texas at Austin’s diversity measures favor minority applicants? To get a better perspective on this question, let’s take a look at U. Texas’s admissions procedure.

In order to promote diversity and equal consideration for all prospective students, U. Texas uses the “Top 10% Rule,” wherein all students who graduate in the top 10% of their high school class are automatically granted admission. This is not an “affirmative action” measure because minority status is not considered as a factor. In fact, this policy is a direct result of the first successful challenge of Affirmative Action in admissions (Hopwood v. Texas, 1997). However, the very nature of the Top 10% Rule ensures a degree of both geographic and ethnic diversity. Both of the plaintiffs in this case were not in the top 10% of their class, and therefore were subject to the school’s discretionary admissions procedure.

When considering prospective students that fall outside the top 10% of their high school class, the University of Texas employs a holistic approach. Race is a factor in this approach, but according to the school it is a “factor of a factor of a factor.” When considering a student for eligibility, the admissions team looks at class rank, test scores, high school curriculum, essays, community service, work experience, and “special circumstance.” Race is a consideration under the umbrella of “special circumstance.”

Officially, there are no quotas or special procedures for minority candidates at the University of Texas. However, the race of every applicant is recorded on the first page of every application. During oral arguments before the Supreme Court, a spokesperson for the school admits that that this serves to “cast the accomplishments of the individual in a certain light,” but that “An applicant’s race is considered only to the extent that the applicant, viewed holistically, will contribute to the broader vision of diversity desired by the university.”

Therefore, it is a stated fact that diversity is a goal of University admissions, whether it is ethnic, socioeconomic, or otherwise. The University of Texas at Austin advocates a diverse student body as a benefit to current students, campus life, and future employers. “If a company had 100 applications for five positions and just took the five with the highest grade point average without looking at anything else, I think people would be stunned,” said William Powers Jr., the president of the University of Texas at Austin. “Grades are important, but there are other important indicia, like leadership and diligence. Grades don’t tell us who is going to have a proclivity, or aptitude, for geosciences, fine arts or teaching.”

This case reflects a shifting attitude on the relevance of affirmative action. Affirmative action was established by executive order of President Lyndon B. Johnson. This order prohibited publicly funded institutions (including colleges) from discriminating based on race, creed, color, origin, or gender. This resulted in public and private colleges factoring race into their admissions process as a means to counteract the societal hardships experienced by minority students, giving them a “leg up” in a situation where they otherwise may have experienced racial discrimination.

But many of today’s college-age students don’t view racism and discrimination in the same way as previous generations. Some people believe that affirmative action for minorities has run its’ course and it is no longer a benefit for minorities, but a barrier for qualified candidates that are considered alongside those minority candidates.

Students such as the the plaintiff Abigail Fisher view affirmative action for minority students as a form of “reverse discrimination,” wherein minorities are favored over majority groups. Fisher says, “There were people in my (high school) class with lower grades who weren’t in all the activities I was in, who were being accepted into UT. And the only difference between us was the color of our skin… I was taught from the time I was a little girl that any kind of discrimination was wrong. And for an institution of higher learning to act this way makes no sense to me.” For some critics of her position, there is irony in the fact that she – as a female – is technically a beneficiary of the same affirmative action policies that she is fighting against.

If the plaintiff’s claims are upheld in the Supreme Court, there is no way of knowing how it will affect campus diversity in public colleges and universities. In some schools, using race as a factor in admissions has already been outlawed, with mixed effects. As a result, schools such as UCLA and UC Berkeley, have experienced significant declines in African-American and Latino enrollment. In contrast, minority enrollment at the  University of Florida has bounced back and occasionally has exceeded what it was before affirmative action in admissions was banned by executive order of Gov. Jeb Bush in 1999.

When race is taken off of the table there are other methods for ensuring ethnic diversity in schools, such as looking at single parent status, socioeconomic position, using minority recruiters, recruiting at minority high schools, and maintaining financial aid programs that are tailored for minority students. However, these measures are certainly more expensive and are not guaranteed to be effective at achieving diversity.

No matter which way you look at it, this is a hotly contested debate that divides people on ideological lines. For some, eliminating affirmative action levels the playing field and allows all candidates to be viewed on merit alone. For others, it means taking a step backward and risking “resegregation” of society. In the case of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, only time will tell. A verdict is not expected in the case until early next year.

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