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Supreme Court Upholds Race-Based University Admissions

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

In a victory for affirmative action advocates, the Supreme Court upheld the University of Texas's admissions criteria that takes an applicant's race into account. The case was brought by a white female applicant, Abigail Fisher, who was denied admission to the university in 2008 and claimed that the school's holistic "Personal Achievement Index" (which considered race as a factor in admissions) violated the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause.

The Court disagreed, saying schools are permitted "considerable deference" when seeking diversity in their student body. You can see the full opinion below.

A Percentage Preferred

The vast majority of University of Texas students are admitted under a strict Top Ten Percent Law, which offers admission to any student who graduates in the top ten percent from a Texas high school. The rest are considered for admission under a combination of the applicant's Academic Index and Personal Achievement Index, and it was the latter that was issue in this case.

Like many other school's admissions criteria, the Personal Achievement Index looked at a variety of factors, including essays, extracurricular activities, and "special circumstances":

"Special circumstances" include the socioeconomic status of the applicant's family, the socioeconomic status of the applicant's school, the applicant's family responsibilities, whether the applicant lives in a single-parent home, the applicant's SAT score in relation to the average SAT score at the applicant's school, the language spoken at the applicant's home, and, finally, the applicant's race.

Fisher, who did not gain automatic entry under the Ten Percent Law, claimed that taking race into account in order to maintain diversity on campus unfairly disadvantaged Caucasian applicants, essentially treating them unequally under the law.

An Enduring Challenge

The Supreme Court ruled in the school's favor, however, voting 4-3 to uphold the race-conscious program. (The vacancy left by Justice Scalia's death has yet to be filled and Justice Kagan recused herself based on her prior work on the case.) Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, marking a shift in his prior stance on affirmative action, and found that: (a) the school had a need to create and maintain racial diversity in the student body; (b) prior, race-neutral policies had been ineffective in achieving that diversity goal; and (c) the program was narrowly tailored to affect only a small portion of the school's incoming students.

"It remains an enduring challenge to our Nation's education system," Kennedy wrote, "to reconcile the pursuit of diversity with the constitutional promise of equal treatment and dignity." He concluded that schools must be able to use racial diversity data "to scrutinize the fairness of its admissions program; to assess whether changing demographics have undermined the need for a race-conscious policy; and to identify the effects, both positive and negative, of the affirmative-action measures it deems necessary."

You can find his full opinion, and Justice Alito's dissent, below:

Fisher v. University of Texas, et al. by FindLaw

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