Future of Affirmative Action Remains Uncertain
When the Supreme Court’s 4-3 decision on Fisher v. University of Texas came in, colleges and advocates of affirmative action breathed a sigh of relief.
Supporters of race-conscious admissions were quick to emphasize the decision’s significance. Even President Obama weighed in, saying:
I’m pleased that the Supreme Court upheld the basic notion that diversity is an important value in our society, and that this country should provide a high-quality education to all our young people, regardless of their background. We are not a country that guarantees equal outcomes, but we do strive to provide an equal shot to everybody. And that’s what was upheld today.
Indeed, there’s no question that the ruling put to the rest the prospect of a dismantling of race-sensitive admissions policies in the near future. The decision reaffirmed the idea that considering race in the admissions process in order to promote diversity isn’t inherently illegal or unconstitutional.
In the long-term, though, the 4-3 decision means things are still up in the air. It’s easy to see a future Supreme Court going in either direction depending on the outcome of this fall’s election.
Even many supporters of affirmative action think of race-conscious admissions policies as having an expiration date. In Grutter v. Bollinger, a landmark Supreme Court decision in favor of affirmative action, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote that the “use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary” within a few decades.
With the technicalities of the Fisher v. University of Texas case steeped in the details of Texas’s Ten Percent Rule and the future uncertain, opponents of affirmative action are gearing up to continue their fight. As Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, commented, “The court’s decision leaves plenty of room for future challenges to racial preference policies at other schools. The struggle goes on.”
What Does the Decision Mean for Asian-American Students?
While arguments surrounding affirmative action most often center on white, African-American, and Hispanic students, race-conscious admissions policies may have significant consequences for another demographic: Asian-American students.
In recent years, a series of lawsuits have been filed against schools like Harvard and, most recently, Dartmouth, Yale and Brown, alleging discrimination against Asian-American applicants. These lawsuits submit that race-conscious admissions has been used to create a de facto quota system, limiting the number of accepted Asian-American students.
There are several statistics that give rise to this claim. First, while the number of Asians as a portion of the total United States population continues to increase more quickly than any other racial group, the percentage of Asian students in Harvard’s incoming class has stayed more or less constant for decades.
In fact, being Asian-American now seems to put applicants at a substantial disadvantage. According to one study, Asian applicants have to score 140 points higher on the SAT to have the same odds as white applicants. No surprise, then, that some research suggests Asian-American students have the most to gain from eliminating affirmative action.
Skeptics point out that this data doesn’t prove race-conscious admissions in and of itself is the driving force behind the disadvantage Asian-American applicants face, and other research has questioned whether the problem could be fixed by ending affirmative action per se. But the numbers are striking, and they suggest that at some level, race seems to be used in the admissions process not just to promote diversity but also to set implicit quotas.
While the Fisher v. University of Texas decision has brought some stability to the short-term future of race-sensitive admissions policies, there’s no doubt that more lawsuits over the implications of affirmative action for Asian-American applicants are in the works, and the higher-education community has yet to propose a solution to this problem – or even acknowledge broadly that the problem exists.
Are There Alternatives to Race-Conscious Admissions?
With the questions that remain over the long-term viability of affirmative action, some researchers, university officials and policymakers have started to look at other ways of admitting diverse classes. Programs along the lines of Texas’s Ten Percent Rule are one alternative, but they’re far from the only one. An approach that seems to be gaining traction is the idea of class-based affirmative action. Giving preference to overachieving students from low-income backgrounds could provide a way to build diverse student bodies while avoiding some of the pitfalls of race-based affirmative action.
\For example, a 2013 study published in the Harvard Law & Policy Review showed that class-based affirmative action could promote racial diversity while also including students from socioeconomically disadvantaged groups who don’t benefit from race-based affirmative action. With the socioeconomic achievement gap now double the racial achievement gap, the idea of moving toward policies based on income rather than race may be catching on.
Only time will tell whether this approach will take off, but one thing seems clear: despite the momentary stability promised by June’s Supreme Court decision, the future of how race factors into college admissions is still in the air. Which direction actual policy will take depends on several political unknowns, but in the meantime, we can hope that college admissions moves forward in a way that not only promotes diversity but also takes into account groups like Asian-Americans that have been more or less sidelined in the current debate.
To Our Students
It is completely optional for students to identify their race on college applications. Students should be aware of the new laws that apply to them and then make an informed decision whether or not they want to check the box. It should be noted that race is only one component of a single factor in the Personal Achievement Score (PAS) and that there are many factors that admissions officers consider when evaluating an applicant.