Affirmative Action and College Admissions: Boosting Diversity or Creating More Barriers?
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Fisher v. University of Texas

In late June, the Supreme Court rejected a high-profile challenge to affirmative action. In Fisher v. University of Texas, the Court ruled 4-3 in favor of the University of Texas, deciding that the University’s race-conscious admissions policy was constitutional.

The ruling brought to an end a legal saga that began in 2008, when Abigail Fisher applied to the University of Texas at Austin and was rejected. Fisher, who had a 3.59 GPA and an SAT of 1180 out of 1600, sued the school, alleging that because she was white, she had been discriminated against on the basis of her race.

Although Fisher graduated from Louisiana State University several years ago, her suit has continued to make its way through the legal system and has become a flashpoint in the debate over affirmative action.

Top Ten Percent Rule

Complicating the situation is University of Texas’s unique system of college admissions. According to Texas law, the University of Texas admits students according to the Top Ten Percent Rule. Until 2009, this meant that Texas students graduating in the top ten percent of their high school classes were guaranteed admission. In 2009, the law was revised to give automatic admission to the top X percent of students required to fill at least 75 percent of the incoming class.

The remaining portion of the class not admitted under the Ten Percent Rule is evaluated according to a mix of factors, or as admissions officers like to put it, a set of “holistic criteria.” The Ten Percent Rule, of course, is race-blind, but the admissions process for applicants not admitted under the Ten Percent Rule is not.

So you can start to see why things got complicated with Fisher v. University of Texas.

When Fisher applied in 2008, she was in the top 12 percent of her class, so she missed the cutoff to be guaranteed admission under the Top Ten Percent Rule. That year, 81 percent of the class enrolled under the Ten Percent Rule, so Fisher’s application then went to be evaluated for one of the remaining spots.

This second round of admissions is where affirmative action comes into play. University of Texas believes that the Ten Percent Rule by itself doesn’t allow for sufficient diversity, so race-sensitive admissions in this second pass through the admissions pool helps round out the incoming class. But Fisher, who was denied admission in this phase of the application process, argues that as a white applicant, she experienced discrimination as a result of the race-conscious admissions policy.

Ultimately, the courts sided with the University – first in a 2009 District Court decision and eventually in this summer’s Supreme Court ruling.

While many of the legal arguments in the case came down to the details of the relationship between Texas’s Ten Percent Rule and the school’s race-conscious admissions policy, Fisher v. University of Texas took on broader significance for both supporters and opponents of affirmative action.

With the dust settling on a controversial and contested decision, people on both sides of the issue are beginning to figure out what the long-term implications are. And it’ll come as no surprise that while Fisher v. University of Texas is settled, the larger debate over college admissions is not.

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