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The Fate of Diversity in College Is Being Tested

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By Andrea Gutierrez

The University of Texas at Austin has always been at the forefront of the battle to use race as a college admissions criteria, and this year is no different. UT Austin's admission policies and the decision made in Gutter v. Bollinger (2003) to allow a watered-down version of affirmative action to continue to exist in public universities across the U.S. are being sent to the Supreme Court once again in Fisher v. Texas.

Beginning with the passage of the 1965 Civil Rights Act, universities across the U.S. adopted affirmative action admissions policies that would allow them to accept a greater amount of minority students in order to diversify their campuses and attempt to repair the ills brought on by legal segregation in their institutions. Many of these new admissions policies came in the form of racial quotas - that is to say that universities filled a certain percentage of seats with minority students. In 1978, though, the Supreme Court banned this practice in Regents of University of California v. Bakke and schools across the nation were left with the task of finding other ways to ensure racial diversity on their campus. The Supreme Court went on to ban similar racial quotas used in admissions in Hopwood v. Texas (1996) and in Gratz v. Bollinger (2003), but left universities the option to use race as one of the many factors used in the admissions process in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003).

Although some universities continue to use race as a factor in admissions, other states have chosen to ban any type of affirmative action practices within their public universities. California, Washington, Michigan, and Florida have all outlawed the practice. Those who opposed affirmative action policies were certain that it would not adversely affect minorities, but, unfortunately, the university student populations in these states are nowhere near where they should be, considering the racial makeup of their high school student populations.

In California, for instance, minority enrollment in the U.C. system plummeted after the proposition banning affirmative action practices passed in 1996. The legislature then decided to use socioeconomic status as a factor in admission. Although the new criterion is not directly linked to race, it successfully raised Latino and Black enrollment in the U.C. system from 15% in 1998 to 24% in 2008. This seems like a big jump, but the minority enrollment in the U.C. system is still not at all where it should be considering 51% of high school students in California are Latino and 7% are Black.

In Michigan, voters elected to ban affirmative action in university admissions and government hiring in 2006. Since the law took effect, the amount of underrepresented minority students enrolling in the University  of Michigan has dropped considerably from 812 in 2005 to 535 in 2010, and the minority students in the state are currently pushing the courts to overturn the 2006 law claiming that it disproportionately hurts underrepresented minority students.

On the other hand, in Texas, the Legislature passed a blanket law in 1997 to counteract the effects of banning affirmative action in public universities stating that any student graduating in the top 10% of their class will be automatically admitted into any of Texas' public universities, thus equaling the playing field for high school students. Before the Top 10% Rule, the University of Texas accepted students from only the top high schools in the state, which posed a huge problem since predominantly black and Latino schools were the ones who performed the worst, had the least funding and served students in the poorer areas of the state. The law succeeded in diversifying Texas' public universities, but the University of Texas in particular is still under scrutiny for their admission policy outside of the Top 10%.

Although the Top 10% is race-neutral, it does not account for the whole incoming freshman class at UT, which is where the holistic review process that's in question this year in the Supreme Court comes into play. The University of Texas states that it uses seven admissions criteria, one of which is "Special circumstances... including [the student's] socioeconomic status, ... cultural background, race and ethnicity, [and] the language spoken in the applicant's home," for students who are admitted under holistic review. Fisher v. Texas argues that the race portion of this criterion should be taken out since it adversely affects white students who may be more qualified than a minority student. Ms. Fisher was denied admission to the University of Texas in 2008 after her application was reviewed holistically and is therefore suing the university.

Some may argue that race does not need to be used as a factor in admissions at UT, but the student population at the state's largest flagship university is still far from being representative of the secondary student population. In 2000, 39.5% of the secondary student population in Texas was Latino, 43.2% white and 14.4% Black. Today, UT's population is comprised of 51% white, 17.6% Latino and 4.2% Black. Although the population of the state has shifted with a huge increase in Latino growth,  this gap is huge!

As a UT alumna, I can attest to the gap that exists between the state population demographics and the student demographics at UT. I do believe the University prides itself in being diverse and inclusive and is doing everything within legal bounds to continue to admit students who are from historically underrepresented, underperforming, and majority-minority population areas of the state. Although I do not believe race should be a large part of a students' application, I do believe that it is important to consider it in a university application since diversity on a college campus is essential in cultivating a culturally conscious and informed student body. 

Andrea Gutierrez lives in McAllen, Texas and works as a college adviser in a local high school. She is passionate about politics and is a proud South Texas Latina.