10/05/2012 06:40 pm ET Updated Dec 05, 2012

Fisher v. UT: A Loaded Decision

Colleges and universities currently have the ability to take into account race and ethnicity when building their freshman classes, with a stipulation: This does not include the use of "quotas" and race cannot be the only selection factor. But in October the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case that could ultimately reduce or rescind that power. The potential impact of this case won't just be seen on our campuses, but in broader American society and our ability to compete as a nation.

To examine that wider context, I'd quote Socrates, who warns us that "the unexamined life is not worth living." Higher education gives students a chance to think more deeply about whom they are and what their lives mean. The first year of college can be a deeply transformative experience. In freshman halls and seminars, students who sometimes come from homogenous neighborhoods can meet and interact with classmates who do not look like or have the same perspective as they do. There is a tremendous power in these experiences that can lead us to overcome artificial barriers of race and ethnicity.

Our graduates will find these experiences indispensable in the economy of the 21st century. The United States is more diverse than it ever has been, and is on a path to become more so. The class that graduates in May 2013 will be more likely to interact with coworkers around the globe than any generation before.

By recruiting workers with vastly different backgrounds and interests and leveraging their human resources around the globe, many U.S. companies have transformed themselves from domestic entities to multi-national corporations. These businesses have grown on the strength of their diversity, and in the academy, we will achieve much if we leverage the same strength to prepare our students to become tomorrow's workforce.

Currently, the United States has the most diverse array of colleges and universities in the world, but we share the common core values of academic freedom and autonomy in governance. This diversity and our values don't just differentiate us from foreign education systems, they also help make us the best in the world. Without these distinctions, and the freedom to create a challenging academic environment for all our students, we risk failing our future student bodies and our country.

As the court considers Fisher v. University of Texas, it must keep in mind that the question is much deeper than simply who gets in and who does not.

Molly Corbett Broad is president of the American Council on Education (ACE), the major coordinating body for higher education in the United States, with more than 1,800 members. In August, ACE joined with higher education associations in submitting an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in support of the University of Texas at Austin.