D.C. area colleges wary of affirmative-action case before Supreme Court

October 12, 2012

College leaders in the Washington region and across the country are hoping to preserve their power to use race and ethnicity as factors in admissions as the Supreme Court considers whether to end such preferences.

Georgetown, George Washington and Johns Hopkins universities joined others in briefs urging the court to uphold the status quo in admissions in a case that involves affirmative action at the University of Texas. The court, which appears deeply divided on the issue, heard oral arguments Wednesday.

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.

George Mason University, a public institution in Fairfax County, is more diverse than the flagship in Charlottesville. Its undergraduates are 47 percent white, 17 percent Asian, 10 percent Hispanic and 9 percent black.

“We have not had to use race in any significant way as part of our undergraduate admissions process,” said Wayne Sigler, GMU’s vice president for enrollment management.

But he said he worries about what would happen in higher education if the court bans race as a factor. “It could have a negative impact on college and university efforts to try to make certain that we do represent a broad cross section of our states and our country,” Sigler said. Much would depend, he said, on nuances in the court ruling.

In College Park, the University of Maryland lists race and ethnicity as two of 26 admission factors. Others include grades in academic subjects, work experience, class rank and community service. “The key for us is that each factor is flexibly applied,” said Barbara Gill, assistant vice president of undergraduate admissions. “There’s not a rank order of importance.”

Data show that U-Md. undergraduates are 56 percent white, 15 percent Asian, 12  percent black and 8 percent Hispanic. The white and Hispanic shares reflect the state population, but black students are underrepresented.

Gill said the university reviewed admissions after the 2003 ruling and discovered that “race does matter.” To ban that factor, she said, would “change things pretty dramatically.”

Among leaders of the region’s top private schools, the sentiment appears to be much the same. “Like most universities, we’re concerned that diversity on our campus would suffer,” said Terri Reed, vice provost for diversity and inclusion at GWU. There, undergraduates are 57 percent white, 10 percent Asian, 7 percent black and 7 percent Latino. (As is true at other schools, the remainder includes students of unknown race, two or more races or foreign nationality.)

Andrew Cornblatt, dean of admissions at Georgetown law school, said: “It does bear saying that this is a tough issue, a sensitive issue. Almost radioactive.”

Some analysts say diversity can be achieved without considering race in admissions. Richard Kahlenberg, of the left-leaning Century Foundation, said universities in some states have found success with policies that give poor students preference. But that means providing more financial aid.

“Affirmative action based on class is harder for universities,” Kahlenberg said. “It’s more expensive. Sometimes those students will need extra support. That’s expensive, too.”

A former Post education editor, Nick writes about college from the perspective of a father of three who will soon be buried in tuition bills.
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