Does affirmative action still have a place in college admissions decisions?

The U.S. Supreme Court will soon decide.

Abigail Fisher and Edward Blum, director of the Project on Fair Representation, at a news conference in Washington in 2013.

Abigail Fisher says she dreamed of going to the University of Texas since she was in the second grade.

She didn’t get in.

Fisher, who is a white woman, said the only reason why the admissions committee didn’t admit her to her dream school is because of her race.

“There were people in my class with lower grades who weren’t in all the activities I was in, who were being accepted into UT, and the only other difference between us was the color of our skin,’’ she said.

Fisher, backed by the Project on Fair Representation, took her complaint to court by suing the university for race-based discrimination in 2008. Now, after a series of appeals, her case will be heard in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.


Although the case won’t be heard until next month, Monday was the last day for interested parties to submit briefs for the court to consider in their decision. Dozens of national and local education-interest groups submitted briefs arguing that, not only are colleges within their rights to consider race in admissions, but that they should.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey filed a brief Monday in support of affirmative action. She, and representatives from 17 other jurisdictions, argue that taking race into account benefits the entire student population.

“Our public colleges and universities educate much of our public and private sector leaders and are critical to the economic security of our nation,’’ Healey said in a statement. “These institutions must be accessible to students of all backgrounds and reflect the diversity of experiences, perspectives, and ideas necessary to compete in a global economy.’’

Healy isn’t the only one getting involved. On Friday, the American Council on Education filed a brief on behalf of itself and 37 other college groups arguing in favor of affirmative action. Four groups that are involved in the admissions process, including the College Board, filed a similar brief Monday. Harvard University is also expected to file its own brief Monday, according to Inside Higher Ed.


Harvard is no stranger to race-based admissions issues. Edward Blum, director of the Project on Fair Representation and the man behind the Fisher case, filed a lawsuit against Harvard last year. But instead of alleging that affirmative action hurt a white student, the complaint says the university’s policies negatively impact Asian students.

In the complaint, Blum’s nonprofit describes how an Asian American student, referred to only as “Applicant,’’ didn’t get into Harvard even though the student graduated at the top of his or her high school class, got a perfect score of 36 on the ACT, and participated in many extracurricular activities.

The complaint says the student is now enrolled at a university that is ranked in the Top 20 in the nation by U.S. News and World Report, and wants to transfer to Harvard “when it ceases the use of race or ethnicity as an admissions preference and ceases its intentional discrimination against Asian Americans.’’

It might be a while. In October, Harvard officials requested that the lawsuit, which says that the university sets “target percentages’’ for underrepresented minorities and illegal quotas on Asian students, needs to wait for the outcome of Fisher v. Texas.

This isn’t the first time the Supreme Court has addressed affirmative action. The issue has been contentious since it was born in the 1960s as part of the Civil Rights Movement. President John F. Kennedy first used the term “affirmative action’’ in an Executive Order directing government contractors to take “affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.’’


Colleges soon began using affirmative action to enroll students from diverse backgrounds. The issue made its first Supreme Court appearance in the 1978 case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. The court ruled that, in setting aside a fixed number of seats for minorities at its medical school, the university violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination by federally funded programs.

However, Justice Lewis Powell said in his opinion that lawful affirmative action programs could still exist if they were based on reasons other than correcting past discrimination. In other words, a university’s interest in having a diverse student body could justify its use of affirmative action.

The Supreme Court upheld this view in 2003, in Grutter v. Bollinger, which said that, while the University of Michigan couldn’t use a point system to give applicants extra points for race, it could use racial preferences in its law school admissions.

But Michigan would go on to ban affirmative action in 2008, joining Florida, Washington, and California in the group of eight states that forbid the practice.

Many advocates who filed briefs argue that this is harmful.

“The consideration of race or ethnicity in light of other elements in a student’s application may provide unique opportunities for applicants to convey their experiences and for admissions professionals to make more contextualized, informed decisions,’’ said the brief filed by the admissions groups. “Precluding consideration of race and ethnicity would, for many institutions, undermine their ability to consider every relevant facet of an individual applicant and to achieve the institution’s broader goals.’’

Statistics show that states that ban affirmative action enroll fewer black and Hispanic freshmen. A 2012 Century Foundation study found that in most states where affirmative action was outlawed, black and Hispanic enrollment at public universities rebounded after an initial drop, going on to exceed the levels before the ban. But the study also showed that in most of those cases, increases didn’t match the growing number of black and Hispanic high school graduates.

The Supreme Court will take these statistics, and the briefs from parties on both sides of the argument into consideration when it hears the case next month. But there’s no guarantee the court will issue a broad ban on any consideration of race. The justices could issue a narrow ruling, or even one that only applies to Texas. Their decision will likely come at the end of the term, in June 2016.

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