How Supreme Court’s Michigan affirmative-action ruling affects colleges


Jose Alvarenga, center, a BAMN (By Any Means Necessary) national organizer, joins with others to read a statement from the organization on the campus of the University of Michigan regarding the Supreme Court's ruling Tuesday in Ann Arbor. (Ryan Garza/AP)

The new Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action leaves in place, for now, a system that allows public universities in Maryland, Virginia and many other states to consider race and ethnicity in admissions.

But the ruling adds momentum to a movement that seeks to end racial preferences in college admissions, not only in Michigan but throughout the country.

The court Tuesday upheld Michigan’s ban on the use of race as a factor in admissions to state universities. It was the second major affirmative-action ruling concerning higher education in less than a year: In a June ruling on a Texas case, the court ordered tighter scrutiny of race-conscious admissions, preserving the principle that affirmative action is permissible in some circumstances.

The upshot: Colleges in several states with affirmative-action bans, including California and Washington state, must continue to use colorblind admissions. Those in states without bans must be prepared to justify why consideration of race is essential for assembling a diverse class.

Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, which represents colleges and universities, said she was disappointed with the latest court decision. “But we are gratified this ruling did not alter the ability of public institutions in states other than Michigan to consider race and ethnicity in admissions decisions,” she said.

On a 6-2 vote, the Supreme Court rejects a challenge to a voter-approved Michigan law that bans the practice of affirmative action for college admissions. (Reuters)

In a fast-moving legal landscape, selective colleges everywhere face pressure on a number of fronts to change how they admit students. President Obama and others are pushing for the nation’s top colleges to open their doors wider to students from poor families. The argument resonates at colleges and universities with a public mission.

“People are focusing on recruiting more low-income students. They do that because they believe in it,” said M. Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. “But it also provides a contribution to diversity.”

Tuesday’s ruling, coupled with the decision in the Texas case, might — or might not — accelerate this trend.

Some experts see a race-
neutral approach to admissions — relying more on geography and family income to sort applicants — as an effective way to help colleges maintain diversity. Others are dubious, citing struggles that the University of California at Berkeley and the University of California at Los Angeles encountered in enrolling black and Hispanic students after voters approved that state’s affirmative-
action ban in 1996.

Nina Robinson, associate president and chief policy adviser for the University of California system, said that UC has tried numerous experiments to improve diversity at its nine undergraduate campuses, including outreach to disadvantaged students, an admission guarantee for those in the top 9 percent of their high school class and revised admission criteria to help applicants who have overcome obstacles in life.

“Those efforts have had disappointing results,” UC officials said in a court brief last year. That glum assessment comes even though UC is a national leader in recruiting students from low-
income families.

Enrolling more students with financial need is expensive. Federal Pell grants do not cover all of the students’ bills. To enroll more of these students, colleges must either cut prices or raise financial aid. That could prove challenging in an era of reduced state funding for higher education.

Some colleges, then, might be caught in a legal and fiscal vise, barred from considering race and hard pressed to expand help for the poor.

While the legal battles over affirmative action have focused mainly on public higher education, it is worth noting that many selective private colleges consider race alongside academic credentials and other factors in what is known as “holistic” admissions. Some of these colleges weighed in with the court in the Texas case in an effort to preserve the status quo.

A broader move in the future to end affirmative action could affect them, too, because private colleges receive substantial federal funding.

Among roughly 700 public four-year colleges and universities nationwide, a large number accept all or nearly all applicants. So affirmative action at those schools is not much of an issue.

Federal data show that 411 state colleges and universities accepted 80 percent or fewer of their applicants in 2012. Of those, 103 accepted half or fewer. That selective group includes the University of Maryland at College Park, the University of Virginia, and the College of William and Mary — all of which consider race as one of numerous factors when reading an application.

Nick Anderson covers higher education for The Washington Post. He has been a writer and editor at The Post since 2005.
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