Affirmative action at risk in college admissions

The U.S. Supreme Court takes up the issue of racial preference in college admissions on Wednesday, and that ought to be a concern for those who believe such policies have provided countless opportunities for minorities — and enriched the educational experience for whites. There is a growing movement in this country to eliminate affirmative action on the grounds that it's no longer needed — or was even helpful in the first place.

Granted, this can be a complex issue, and even the most liberal interpretations of the race-conscious policy acknowledge that a balance must be struck to make colleges diverse but also keep the admissions process fair and merit-based.


But the danger is that the justices may bar a consideration of race in college admissions entirely. If that were to happen (or similarly, if severe restrictions were imposed), the setback for African-Americans, Hispanics and certain other minorities in this country would be enormous.

At issue are the practices of the University of Texas at Austin, which in 2008 denied admissions to Abigail Fisher, a Sugar Land, Texas high school senior who is white. She sued on the grounds that the school's admissions policies favor minorities even though three-fourths of undergraduates are admitted to the school under a completely race-neutral policy that offers a spot to in-state students who finish in the top 10 percent of their high schools. The vast majority of minority students admitted to UT are actually enrolled through this program.


Ms. Fisher, however, could not qualify this way. Instead, she had to compete for a spot under a selection process that is what the flagship school calls "holistic," taking into account such factors as test scores, work experience, community service, leadership, and yes, race, to guarantee the university a diverse student body.

That's a common practice at competitive schools like Texas. Schools can't impose racial quotas or targets under the law. But the Supreme Court ruled several decades ago (and reaffirmed as recently as nine years ago in a University of Michigan case) that it was perfectly permissible to consider race in the admissions process as a means to promote student body diversity.

That struck us then as reasonable, and it still does. Competitive schools consider all sorts of factors in the name of developing a well-rounded campus. Students with specific athletic skills get a leg up. So might orchestra musicians, artists and actors, first-generation college students and those with unusual life experiences. The goal is not merely to help the disadvantaged but to make sure that all students get exposed to the broadest array of peers rather than be stuck in a homogeneous cocoon.

But the court has gotten more conservative in recent years with the departure of Sandra Day O'Connor (who wrote the court's last opinion on the issue). One justice who likely would have supported the school's position, Elena Kagan, has recused herself from the case on the grounds that she was briefed on the issue when she served as solicitor general. An adverse ruling could affect admissions not just at state schools but at private colleges as well.

The logic of a such a ruling eludes us. Schools don't give strict racial preference but do consider diversity of all types, not just race, but life experience. These are details that can't be discerned by grades or test scores alone. If the practice is struck down and top schools accept fewer minorities, who wins exactly? Not the minority students no longer given a foot in the door, not the non-minority students who are exposed to a less diverse campus, and not the minority communities where successful students can return and become role models for the importance of education.

It's instructive to note that schools aren't the ones seeking to overturn this practice. College administrators and admissions officers have recognized the benefits of diversity, and most support affirmative action. It's only those who believe they were victimized who are fighting it.

Still, in a competitive admissions process, there will always be winners and losers as well as those who believe they were treated unfairly. As it happens, the 22-year-old Ms. Fisher received her education, earning a degree from Louisiana State University. That hardly seems to make her a victim — or serves as an argument for closing the door to hundreds of minority college applicants.