At leading public institutions in Maryland and Virginia, race also factors into what officials call a “holistic” review of applicants. That means any ruling that overturns or curtails legal precedents allowing race-conscious admissions would reverberate powerfully in higher education, complicating efforts by selective schools to assemble classes that look like the nation’s multicultural society.
At the College of William & Mary, federal data show that 57 percent of undergraduates are white, 8 percent Hispanic, 7 percent black and 7 percent Asian. In some respects, that demographic portrait at the elite public school roughly echoes the population of Virginia, although black students are underrepresented.
“Consideration of race as one of many factors in the admission process helps us enroll the best and brightest students from all quarters, build a class that is broadly representative of the public we serve, and ensure that all who come to William & Mary will become part of a diverse community,” Henry R. Broaddus, the college’s associate provost for enrollment and dean of admission, wrote in a statement.
Exactly how much race weighs in admissions is difficult to pinpoint, because officials say decisions are made with each applicant’s entire academic record and background in mind.
But critics of race-conscious admissions say that if even one student is accepted into a university for that reason over another qualified applicant, it’s one too many.
“We’re all in favor of academic freedom and autonomy and all that, but there are some principles that are more important,” said Roger Clegg, president of the conservative Center for Equal Opportunity, based in Falls Church. Universities, he said, “should not be engaging in racial discrimination.”
Affirmative action in admissions is an especially volatile issue because college is a gateway to economic and social advancement. Leaders of selective schools don’t want to be perceived as shutting doors to certain groups of people that others can walk through routinely. But those leaders also want students with superior grade-point averages, transcripts and test scores.
In 2003, the Supreme Court affirmed that student diversity is a compelling state interest that can justify the use of race in university admissions, as long as schools take sufficient care to evaluate each applicant individually.
At the highly selective University of Virginia — where federal data show that 60 percent of undergraduates are white, 12 percent Asian, 7 percent black and 5 percent Hispanic — officials declined to be interviewed about the possible impact of the 2003 decision being overturned. But U-Va. indicated in a statement that officials may consider “race/ethnicity, economic hardship, accomplishments in the school or community, aspirations, interests and experiences” in the calculus of assembling a diverse class.