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Diversity and Merit in College Admissions: A False Dichotomy

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All eyes are on the Supreme Court today as it considers Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, its first case on the use of race in college admissions since 2003. Back then a different group of justices ruled that diversity is such an important national interest that universities could continue to consider race as one of many factors when deciding who to admit. Now the lawsuit brought against UT by a rejected white applicant named Abigail Fisher challenges the right of all colleges to use race in a holistic process that fosters diverse student bodies.

It's expected to be a close decision. If the Court sides with Fisher, our nation's colleges could soon become much less diverse -- with major repercussions in every sector of our society.

My organization, Teach For America, was one of over 100 that filed amicus (friend of the court) briefs on behalf of the University of Texas, joining retired generals, Fortune 500 companies, civil rights organizations, social scientists, universities and the United States government. We wanted to share our perspective on why diversity on college campuses is essential to developing the leadership force our country needs to ensure that all children have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.

Race-conscious admissions are too often portrayed as a battle between diversity and merit. After 23 years working with some of the most disadvantaged students in the country, we know that's a false dichotomy. Every day in our classrooms we see the pervasive racial and socioeconomic inequities that plague our education system. Despite plenty of evidence that all children can excel when met with high expectations and enough support, fewer than 20% of African American and Latino fourth graders can read at grade level, compared to 42% of white students. African Americans are nearly twice as likely and Latinos three times as likely as white students to drop out of school.

Yet we know the young people who overcome the extra challenges of race and poverty to become competitive for college admissions have the unique potential to be powerful leaders in their communities and for our country precisely because they have overcome obstacles their peers have not.

Our country needs the leadership of these young men and women if the United States is ever going to close the opportunity gap, which has such a devastating impact on our country at large. Persistent inequality costs the U.S. hundreds of billions of dollars a year, undermining our global competitiveness, our democracy, and our ideals as a nation. It's crucial that the leadership force fighting for educational equity at every level -- from teachers, principals, and superintendents to policymakers and community advocates -- be diverse in order to have the perspective and inspire the trust necessary to be effective in urban and rural communities.

For starters, we need more college graduates of color becoming teachers. Only 7 percent of public school teachers are African American and 7 percent are Latino, whereas 15 percent of public school students are African American and 23 percent are Latino. We've seen that teachers who share the backgrounds and have overcome the same challenges as their students can serve as role models of what is possible and can have a powerful impact on a student's overall achievement.

For over two decades Teach For America has worked hard to recruit a diverse corps of teachers. 38% of our 2012 corps members identify as people of color, including 13% African American and 9% Latino. Of our 28,000 alumni -- 2/3 of whom still work in education -- 30% are people of color. As Teach For America has become more representative of the families we serve, we've performed at a higher and higher level.

But in trying to fuel a diverse leadership force, we've come face to face with the painful lack of diversity in our higher education system. At the 340 most selective public and private universities, only 5% of graduates are African American and 6% are Latino.

Teach For America would not be able to continue recruiting and developing an ever-more diverse and impactful group of corps members and alumni if the nation's leading colleges become even less diverse. The decision to end the consideration of race as one admissions factor would reverse what progress has been made toward building a diverse leadership pipeline.

The lack of diversity in higher education is a problem we as a country must tackle if we're going to live up to our promise. As Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in her 2003 decision for the Court, "In order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity." Today more than ever before, the path to leadership in every field goes through college. Cultivating more leaders who reflect our heterogeneous society depends on universities' transparent use of race as one of many factors in an admissions process that is accessible to all.

By upholding policies that enable more qualified applicants of color to attend college, the Supreme Court would help ensure all students -- and our country -- reach their full potential.