What You Need to Know About Affirmative Action

What You Need to Know About Affirmative Action

Learn about Fisher v. Texas and the history of affirmative action in the U.S.

By Caroline Shannon-Karasik

When Abigail Fisher of Sugar Land, Texas applied to The University of Texas at Austin, she was denied admission to the university.

Now, let's face it: Like it or not, there is nothing remarkable about an applicant not being accepted to a college or university. However, Ms. Fisher claims her case was in fact an exceptional one.

Fisher, who recently graduated from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, said the University of Texas has illegally discriminated against her by not admitting her to the school because she is white. The case, which went before the U.S. Supreme Court last Wednesday, lies in Fisher's belief that the school placed her in a pool of applicants that were given extra consideration if they were black or Hispanic — which, if true, would violate a set of policies known as affirmative action.

The History of Affirmative Action

Affirmative action is a federal agenda that was initiated in the 1960s as a method for counteracting any decision — specifically, those in relation to education of employment — that takes race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or national origin into consideration in order to benefit a minority group.

"We don’t need a case like University of Texas’s before the Supreme Court to know that the practice of affirmative action is a hotly contested one," said Monica McGurk, CEO and Executive Editor of The Alumni Factor.

The university also guarantees admission — as a part of the state’s “Top 10 Percent Plan” — to any Texas resident who is in the top ten percentile of his or high school class. Fisher, with a 3.59 GPA, however, was not within that range.

The truth is — a case like Fisher's has come before the Supreme Court before. In 2003, the court ruled in the case of Grutter v. Bollinger, which questioned the policies of the University of Michigan's law school, that colleges must promote diversity and give "serious, good-fair consideration to affirmative action preferences.”

What Students Think About Affirmative Action

As for college students' opinion on the issue, McGurk said, "college graduates themselves are smack in the middle" when it comes to the issue, a fact that was thoroughly reflected during The Alumni Factor's recent survey of thousands of college graduates on various issues.

"Nearly 50 percent of our survey respondents somewhat agreed or somewhat disagreed with the statements 'Affirmative Action is Fair' and 'Affirmative Action is Unfair,'" McGurck said.

"The remaining 50 percent are nearly equally split between agreement and disagreement. Of all the issues we probed," McGurk said, "the practice of affirmative action is the social issue with the least amount of consensus among college graduates."

What's more, McGurk said the graduates most likely to favor affirmative action "hail from the historically Black colleges, the all-women colleges, and the most liberal colleges."

"Those that most oppose affirmative action are graduates of the military academies, the technical schools, and other conservative schools," she said. "Thirteen of the 25 schools whose graduates most disagree that affirmative action is fair hail from the South, with the rest coming from schools in California, Colorado, Indiana, Ohio, Utah, New York, and Pennsylvania."

These stats could in fact be reflective of the some experts' belief that the Supreme Court might be willing to revisit this issue as a result of its more conservative nature (as opposed to the 2003 ruling).

College Budgets and Admissions Decisions

"Higher education, while often identified as being 'non-profit,' is a business, regardless of whether a school is public or private," said Kimberly Shepherd, founder of KSA Educational Consulting, in regards to how race (and a myriad other factors) is already used in college admission decisions.

"The legalities of how funds are spent provide tax distinctions, but the fundamental truth is that colleges and universities have boards to answer to, students and parents to answer to, and they must please these constituents while meeting their educational and business goals," explained Shepherd. "One of the ways that this is accomplished is through the process of recruiting students to the school."

Shepherd pointed out that schools use their marketing budgets to not only diversify their student body, but to boost a number of other student body factors, including the admittance of more highly qualified students.

"Virtually every school seeks to increase their diversity — allowing for a richer student experience, a broader knowledge base, and even a future development opportunity as students who are pleased with their collegiate experience will be more generous with their time, talent and treasure in the future," she said.

"Achieving diversity can be difficult, especially for a school that has a long tradition of being less so, or one with less prominence or academic reputation."

Diversity for Academics, Sports and Student Life

Shepherd maintains that while no school wants to be viewed as offering preferential admission to any type of student over another, "the facts remain — a school that needs to bolster a certain academic program will offer more scholarships to qualified students pursuing that major; a school with a particular athletic position to fill will spend more recruiting time seeking and courting such athletes; a school that has been primarily male and wants to even its gender ratio will be preferential in its admission practices to qualified students who are female. These circumstances can apply to gender, race, religion, geography, intended major, athletic ability and more."

However, Shepherd posed these questions: "Is this wrong? Assuming students meet or exceed admission standards, why can't a school select its student body as it chooses?" The challenge, she said is summed up into a human right that affects so many other issues in the United States: Freedom.

"We want to be free to attend the college or university of our choosing," Shepherd said. "We don't want a school to be able to deny our attendance for any reason. Yet schools are, of course, permitted to deny students admission for not meeting academic standards of admission. Why shouldn't schools be able to deny admission to students who do not meet a school's needs?"

The Future of Affirmative Action

That question, of course, will be left unanswered until the Supreme Court makes its ruling, a decision that is expected to take place before July 2013. If the court rules the University of Texas was out of line, then that would, naturally, reflect poorly on the university. But if the court rules against all race-conscious admission policies within the nation's colleges and universities, then it would not only reject its own precedents, but set forward a new one.

"The issue before the Supreme Court essentially revolves around preferential treatment due to race," said Thalia Thompson, founder of College Admissions Coaching, LLC. "If you disagree with that notion at ANY cost, then you will be against the University. If you understand and appreciate the circumstances which make access to educational opportunities less available to minorities (in general), then you will be in favor of the University's position."

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