Supreme Court Hearing in Fisher Case Puts College Access Back in the Spotlight

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At issue in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, which was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court last week, is whether postsecondary institutions should be allowed to use race as a factor in admissions decisions. The case was brought by Abigail Fisher, a young white woman who did not gain admission to UT-Austin and is arguing that this is the result of the university’s admissions policy, which considers the race, as well as a number of other factors, of applicants that are not automatically admitted under Texas’ Ten Percent Plan (TPP). The university asserts that Ms. Fisher would not have been admitted under other admission criteria even if race were not a factor in their admissions process.

Fisher marks the first time an affirmative action case has been heard by the Supreme Court since 2003 when its ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger last curtailed the extent to which colleges and universities could use race as a factor in admissions decisions.

Should the Supreme Court opt for the elimination of affirmative action policies, even ones as modest as those used by UT-Austin, it would likely steepen the climb to college for African-American and Latino students who already face significant barriers on the road to college. Black and Hispanic students are currently up to 11 percentage points less likely than their white peers to enroll in a 2-year or 4-year college within 12 months of high school graduation.

As noted, UT-Austin participates in the TPP, which guarantees any student who graduates in the top 10 percent of their class from any public high school in Texas admission to one of Texas’ public universities. Students admitted under this plan make up about 75 percent of each class at UT-Austin. The school currently also considers race as one of many factors when evaluating the 25 percent of students who are not admitted through the TPP.

In her lawsuit, Ms. Fisher argues that but for UT-Austin’s consideration of race in evaluating the non-TTP students, she would have been admitted. She further argues that the use of race is unnecessary because the TPP successfully creates a “critical mass” of students of color at the university. The creation of a “critical mass” of diverse students was specifically identified as a permissible use of race in admissions in Grutter v. Bollinger.

During last week’s oral arguments, neither side sought to overrule Grutter, however, the plaintiff and several justices seemed inclined to gut its central premise that using race, at least in part, to establish a “critical mass” of diverse students was permissible because the creation of that diversity was an important goal for universities. If Grutter is narrowed in the way the plaintiff advocates, affirmative action policies could become effectively impossible to implement at our nation’s colleges and universities.

Affirmative action is an important strategy for reducing the racial access gaps and creating diverse campus communities. The Supreme Court should not further limit an already narrow use of these policies. Of course, regardless of which way the court rules, K-12 institutions must do a better job of preparing all students for success in college. And colleges and universities must continue to broaden access for students of color and low-income students, while also implementing strategies that help more of those students succeed in earning a degree.

Learn more about what schools are doing to prepare more students for admission to and success in college at The Education Trust’s National Conference. Advance registration ends Oct. 31, so register today and save!

-Kate Tromble