Affirmative Action in the Twenty-First Century?

By: Julia Reinitz

During the third and fourth weeks of this quarter, the University of Chicago campus will be swarming with visiting accepted students. In March and April, hundreds of thousands of high school seniors receive their college admissions decisions and make a final commitment to an institution. For those who get into the school of their dreams, this is an amazing time. For others, this is a season of disappointment. For a few like Ms. Abigail Fisher, it can be a season of simple outrage. Denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin in 2008, Ms. Fisher sued the University, arguing the use of affirmative action by the university resulted in her rejection in favor of minority students with lower GPAs.

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This suit immediately raised questions over the legality of affirmative action in college admissions in the United States. In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Grutter v. Bollinger that diversity was, “…a compelling state interest,” in public university admissions. The precedent set byGrutter allowed universities to use race as one factor in making admissions decisions. In Texas, all students who finish in the top ten percent of their high school class are admitted to a University of Texas campus. The policy challenged by Ms. Fisher is concerns students outside the top ten percent. The university actively takes race into account when considering students outside the top ten percent of their high school class. The Supreme Court is expected to hear the case next fall.

Meanwhile, affirmative action questions were also raised in California. On April 2, 2012, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an amendment to California’s constitution that outlawed “preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of […] public education”. The court effectively banned affirmative action.

In a roundabout challenge the decision, the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action (BANM) argued the Court failed to protect the constitutional rights of its constituents. According to BAMN, the Court did not prohibit consideration of other factors such as veteran status, income, or geographic background, while prohibiting consideration of race and ethnicity. The decision effectively violated the constitutional right to equal protection in the Fourteenth Amendment. As in the Fisher case, the California case questioned the scope of Grutter precedent. However, the 9th Circuit found that Grutter,“spoke only to whether race-based affirmative action programs are permitted, and not to whether they can be prohibited”.

These cases cast much doubt over the future of affirmative action programs in public university admissions. Programs accounting for race obviously have increased enrollment of black and Hispanic minority students. The policies implemented by the University of Texas have made it the sixth-greatest producer of undergraduate degrees for minority students nationwide. In California, black and Hispanic admissions dropped by almost one-quarter immediately after the passage of the “affirmative action ban”, but have since rebounded somewhat.

Opponents of affirmative action have argued the current system is unfair to white and Asian students, while supporters of affirmative action have argued the system is unfair to black, Hispanic, and other minority applicants. It seems impossible to create a system, which would make everyone happy. Maybe this system is simply part of college admissions. The process is a high-stakes game where everyone wants to get into certain schools. Not everyone, however, can achieve this goal. Regardless of how you choose who gets those coveted spots, someone will be left out.

In Grutter, Justice O’Connor wrote there would come a day when affirmative action policies were no longer necessary. She envisioned that day would come approximately 25 years after Grutter. If the court decides to end their endorsement of race-conscious admissions policies next fall in Fisher, will it be too soon?

Julia Reinitz is a first year in the College.