Protect Campus Diversity

The Supreme Court has upheld affirmative action but, one educator points out, we still have a long way to go to achieve equity in college admissions.

When Abigail Fisher was denied admission to the University of Texas, a long-held expectation that she would go there was shattered. Disappointed, she saw herself as a victim of racial discrimination. She decided to sue. Her case illustrates how race affects the way we see the world—and the things to which we feel entitled.

Why did Fisher set her sights on UT? Her father and older sister had attended the University, and she saw her own college years there as a continuation of family tradition. Her expectation was not unreasonable: She was plugged into the college-readiness program and had a built-in family network to lead her through the college-application process. And she is white.

We all know that, in the end, Fisher was denied undergraduate admission to UT. Her argument was that once the University had admitted all Texas students in the top 10 percent of their classes, race should not be used as a factor in determining which of the remaining applicants to admit. Affirming the use of race as one factor, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower court to scrutinize how race influenced UT’s admissions process.

But the Fisher case didn’t shed any light on the ways race really plays out in college admissions. Nor did it speak to the broader issue of inequities for students of color on college campuses. 

Like many white students whose families had preceded them to college, Fisher was fortunate enough to have had several choices. Last year she graduated from Louisiana State University, her second choice. But not all students have such an abundance of options when pursuing higher education. Nor can they expect that they will and should be accepted. Or that their failure to be accepted has to do with anything other than the record they’ve assembled. The reality is that many students do not have those choices or expectations. This is particularly true of students of color, despite popular opinion that these students are routinely accepted into colleges in lieu of better-qualified white students. 

Student enrollment at top universities continues to skew white and economically privileged. Black and Latino students and students who live in poverty are underrepresented. Students of color are less likely than white students to have a family tradition of attending college. That lack of tradition makes it less likely that these students are being advised about the college-application process, can provide alumni references, or have access to activities likely to elicit a positive nod from an admissions committee.

Despite efforts to make college campuses more diverse, admission is still less likely for students of color than for white students: About 6 percent of UT students, for example, are African American. Under the UT admissions process, students not automatically admitted because they are in the top 10 percent of their high school class are rated on an academic and personal-achievement index in which race may be included.

Under these guidelines, four students of color who scored lower than Fisher were admitted to UT. But so were 42 white students with lower scores than hers. Moreover, 168 Latino and black students whose scores were identical to or higher than Fisher’s were denied admission. Even considering Fisher’s race as a factor, her odds of getting in were still pretty good.

I understand the disappointment of not attaining a long-held goal. I also see that we have a long way to go to achieve equity in college admission and retention rates for students of color. I look forward to a time when protections are not necessary. That time has not yet arrived.

Njaka is a writer and education professional committed to social justice. Based in Massachusetts, she is a former Breakthrough Collaborative teacher of high-potential students.

Costello is director of Teaching Tolerance.

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