Column: Another Approach To Admissions
Published: Sunday, October 14, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01
In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled in Grutter v. Bollinger that universities could utilize affirmative action in their admissions policies in order to promote a diverse student body, so long as the policy used race as only a plus factor and not a deciding factor. In the majority ruling, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote that the Constitution does not prohibit the use of race in admissions decisions if it is used in a precise manner and it furthers a compelling educational interest that is derived from having a diverse student body. However, she also said that she did not see racial affirmative action as a permanent fixture in admissions decisions, suggesting that in 25 years it would no longer be necessary.
It has only been nine years since that decision, and yet the Supreme Court heard arguments in a similar affirmative action case last Wednesday. The question raised by petitioner Abigail N. Fisher, a Caucasian female applicant to the University of Texas, was whether or not the University’s admissions policy violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment in the case Fisher v. University of Texas.
Out of the thousands of cases that come before the Court, it hears fewer than 100 of them. Given the limited time resources that the Court has, I wonder whether or not those resources are being efficiently used by spending time hearing a case that is not substantially different from a case heard less than a decade ago. Although O’Connor suggested that affirmative action would eventually be unnecessary, the time frame that she suggested was that of a couple of decades, not a few years. Furthermore, given the jurisprudential importance of stare decisis, it seems unlikely that the Court would overturn a case that is not greatly differentiated from an identical case less than a decade old.
The importance of the case and the implications of a possible decision, however, could justify the Court’s decision to hear such a similar case. Although racial affirmative action has been around since the 1960s, there has always been controversy over its constitutionality and its goals and effects. Since its inception, there have been different stated goals of the racial affirmative action programs used in university admissions processes. While the original goal was to redress social injustices caused by slavery and racial discrimination, O’Connor framed its purpose in her majority opinion in terms of the educational benefits of having a diverse student body at a university.
Given both of these purposes, I have always questioned the effectiveness of the racial affirmative action programs in place in universities across the country. In most schools, the admissions policies take race into account without considering the socioeconomic backgrounds of the applicants. This diminishes the effectiveness of the policies because of the applicants that it helps the most.
When I was in high school, one of my friends told me about his experience applying to Yale as a black student. He was an upper middle-class suburbanite who had all the advantages in life that his white classmates had. While his grades were good and his resume strong, he said he knew they were not as strong as some of my other classmates applying to Yale. He was the only student Yale accepted from my school and wondered whether he would have had that opportunity if it weren’t for his race.
In many cases, these are the students that affirmative action helps the most. Because of their socioeconomic status, they have all the monetary advantages in life that seem so necessary to put together an attractive college resume. Insofar as cultural diversity is concerned, the culture from which he came was no different than his white applicants. If the purpose of current policies is to right social injustices and increase cultural diversity, then that could be more effectively achieved if it were targeted outright.