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U.S. Supreme Court upholds use of race in college admissions

In a 4-3 decision this morning, the Supreme Court upheld the race-conscious admissions approach used at the University of Texas, Austin.

In 2008, white student Abigail Fisher sued after she was denied admission to the Texas flagship because she did not graduate in the top 10 percent of her high school class.  She contended she was denied because she was white.

Seventy-five percent of students admitted to the Austin campus reflect the “talented 10” policy that assures spots to students graduating in the upper ranks of their high school class. Fisher did not make the cut for the remaining 25 percent of admissions based on multiple considerations, including leadership, extracurriculars, honors, socioeconomic status, family composition and race.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr., dissented.

An argument against the Texas program was affirmative action hurt the very students it set out to help -- poor and minority kids --  by increasing their access to colleges that were too tough for them.

Indeed, the late Justice Antonin Scalia raised the issue during oral arguments in the Fisher case. "There are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a less -- a slower-track school where they do well," he said.  "One of the briefs pointed out that most of the black scientists in this country don't come from schools like the University of Texas."

Scalia was not alone in that contention. Parents whose kids did not get into the University of Georgia or Georgia Tech often complain their high-achieving child lost out to a less qualified minority student with lower ACT or SAT scores who will struggle at these competitive campuses.

Are there instances where a highly qualified suburban student lost out because UGA or Tech admitted a minority or poor student with lower test scores in an effort to prevent their campuses from looking like collegiate versions of Lambert or Northview high schools?


But here's the important fact: It is not that these admitted students are unqualified; they may have lower ACT scores,  but they have shown academic excellence and dedication despite few of the advantages enjoyed by their affluent peers. They did not go to math camp or ACT prep. They did not have parents who began planning for college when they were still in cribs.

Yet, they worked hard and attained strong grades. Yes, their high schools may be second-rate when compared to powerhouse Cobb or Forsyth schools, but their personal efforts were not.

And their college performance proves that.

As I wrote yesterday, a new study out of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce found that placing average students in the nation’s best colleges and universities will increase their rate of graduation by 26 percent. The report says lower scoring African-Americans and Hispanics — many from low-income backgrounds —  perform much better when placed in academically challenging environments, even when other students are predominantly white (75 percent), and affluent (56 percent of students come from the nation’s wealthiest families).

In the majority opinion, Justice Kennedy said universities have to be able to shape their student bodies. “Considerable deference is owed to a university in defining those intangible characteristics, like student body diversity, that are central to its identity and educational mission,” he wrote.

In her lawsuit, Fisher alleged the University of Texas admitted five black and Latino students with lower scores and grades than her. What is lost in this debate: The university also admitted 42 whites with lower scores and grades than Fisher. Apparently, those 42 students brought something unique or special to the table the university valued and felt would enrich the campus.

I don't get the singular focus on race. We could also focus on the kids admitted because they play the tuba or live in rural Texas or volunteer 20 hours a week at an animal shelter. Yet, it's the perception that minority applicants have an edge that riles up people and sparks the greatest backlash.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.