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Why Do We Keep Debating Race-Conscious College Admissions?

A lawsuit against the University of Texas' use of race in admissions is set to be heard by the Supreme Court. Not even Walmart supports it.

The spring of my senior year of high school one of my teachers asked everyone in class to share where they'd been accepted to college. I was thrilled that I'd been accepted at my dream school, Northwestern University, but it turned out that a white classmate who'd applied there hadn't gotten in. Although I was acing my honors and AP courses and had stellar SAT scores, I suddenly found myself in the middle of a class debate over whether I had been accepted at Northwestern solely because I was black. The student who hadn't been accepted complained that I'd probably taken her spot at the school.

This accusation that an undeserving and unqualified student of color has taken a white student's spot goes into overdrive every few years when a white student decides to sue a college or university that rejected them. In Fisher v. Texas, the latest go-round, Abigail Fisher, a woman who filed suit in 2008 against the University of Texas at Austin, claims she was denied admission to the school because she’s white. The United States Supreme Court is set to hear the case this fall.

Since 2003, UT Austin’s policy has been to admit students who are in the top 10 percent of high school seniors and also consider additional factors: test scores, community service and work experience, as well as economic background and race. While Fisher and her supporters say the school's policy violates her civil and constitutional rights, it has the backing of a wide swath of heavy hitting supporters.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the court has received more than 50 briefs supporting Texas' ability to consider race in undergraduate admissions, including those signed by "17 U.S. senators, 66 U.S. representatives, 15 state governments," and "about 100 colleges that fear their efforts to promote diversity may be at risk." Indeed 440 individual scholars from 172 colleges and universities signed onto a research brief of prepared by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California at Los Angeles for the court. "We believe it is vital that the Court have the newest and most rigorous peer-reviewed research and statistical analyses when considering an issue that is so critical for all of the nation’s selective colleges and universities," the brief says.

Opponents of race-conscious admissions might need to start boycotting corporations like Wal-Mart, Starbucks, and United Airlines because the entire Fortune 100 and several other notable businesses also filed a brief in support of UT Austin with the Supreme Court. They say in their brief "that the conscious pursuit of diversity in the admissions decisions of institutions of higher education—including diversity based upon race, religion, culture, economic background, and other factors—is a compelling state interest."

The businesses go on to add that they need to have a college educated workforce that knows how to operate in a country and world economy that is increasingly diverse. They've "found through practical experience that a workforce trained in a diverse environment is critical to their business success," but they can't reach that goal if colleges aren't "allowed to recruit and instruct the best qualified minority candidates and create an environment in which all students can meaningfully expand their horizons."

And, despite the heat that the Obama Administration is sure to get—can't you just hear complaints of a black President pulling special favors for black students—they also filed a supportive brief. "The Nation's interests in a range of areas—including military readiness, national security, public health, federal law enforcement, global competitiveness, and education—will be more readily achieved," the brief says, "if the pathways to professional success are visibly open to all segments of American society."

What's sad is that despite such clear acknowledgement from so many prominent sectors of our society that we need people from all racial backgrounds to be educated, and knowing how to live and work in a diverse environment is critical to success in the 21st century, people like Fisher and her supporters only see that black, Latino, Asian, and Native Americans are getting unfair handouts.

I’ll never know for sure why Northwestern University accepted me. Was it only because I had an amazing transcript and had been in every activity I could stuff into my schedule? Maybe not. The reality is that in college admissions the people who seem perfect on paper and come in with 4.0 GPAs and perfect test scores aren't always the ones who are a great fit for a school.

Similarly, there could be plenty of reasons that have nothing to do with race to explain why Fisher was not admitted to UT Austin. Maybe she didn't have enough leadership experience or her essays were terrible. Or, given that there are now fewer men than women earning college degrees it's not unusual for schools to take gender into account when making admissions decisions. We can speculate endlessly on Fisher's situation, and at the end of the day I don't care that my high school classmate assumed Northwestern simply needed an extra black body to fill a secret quota.

What we do know for sure is that although the Supreme Court will hear the case in October and is likely to rule in early 2013, this won't be the last time this ugly debate rears its head.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Sterling College

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