This month, when the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in this term’s big higher education affirmative action case, Fisher v. University of Texas, The Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed I wrote entitled "A Liberal Critique of Racial Preferences" alongside an article by the president of the University of Texas at Austin, Bill Powers, entitled "An Admissions Policy that Prizes Diversity." Powers painted Austin as a champion of racial justice, noting "My university once kept blacks out. Now at Texas we ensure that their grandchildren can enter."
In the affirmative action wars, leading institutions of higher education have positioned themselves as high-minded proponents of racial inclusion. On the surface, that appears to be true, as universities and colleges have deluged the Supreme Court with amicus briefs filed in support of the ability of institutions to employ racial preferences in admissions. And, to be sure, many leaders are genuinely committed to the important ideas that racial diversity strengthens education and that racial integration of selective colleges is a moral imperative.
But at I outline in a new report for the Century Foundation, there are many ways to produce racial diversity without using race – such as giving a leg up to economically disadvantaged students, or providing automatic admission to students at the top of their high school class. Indeed, when one looks more closely at the facts in the Texas case, university leaders have actively sought to curtail a highly effective automatic admissions program that produces a great deal of racial, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity. In fact, the evidence suggests that UT leaders appear to prize something even more than racial inclusion: the discretion to admit whomever they want, including disproportionate numbers of wealthy and white students.
While President Powers like to wax eloquent about the importance of diversity – writing, “In my 38 years in the classroom, I often have seen how a diverse classroom enriches discussion, provides valuable insights and offers a deeper learning experience” – in fact Texas has fought for years to limit the state’s most powerful engine for racial, ethnic, and economic diversity.
When Texas was banned from using racial preferences by a lower court in the mid-1990s, the legislature passed a top 10 percent plan, by which students who rank at the top of their high schools are automatically eligible to be admitted to UT Austin. UT continued to admit some students by a more traditional holistic review, which included a number of factors, such as test scores, grades and socioeconomic status. When the U.S. Supreme Court endorsed the ability of universities to consider race in the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger decision, Texas began using race as part of its discretionary (non-top 10 percent) admissions process. This use of racial preferences gave rise to litigation by a white student, Abigail Fisher, whose case is now being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Texas argues that it needs to use race in admissions to ensure racial diversity, but as David Savage has reported in The Los Angeles Times, 9 of 10 Latino and black student admitted to UT in the last two years came from automatic admissions, not through affirmative action. Even though the top 10 percent plan (which in 2011 was limited to the top 8 percent), produces substantial socioeconomic and racial diversity, UT Austin has continually fought in the Legislature to curtail the program's reach, thereby reducing rather than enhancing racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity on campus.
In 2007, Powers and UT Austin sought legislation to cap the proportion of students admitted through the 10 percent plan, which then stood at 71 percent of students, at 40 or 50 percent of the
freshman class. According to The Austin American-Statesman, Powers argued that the cap would make it easier to produce racial diversity because the university would have greater discretion to provide racial preferences. But minority legislators saw that the 10 percent plan was producing significant diversity on its own and did not buy UT’s argument. A fascinating coalition of white rural legislators and urban minority lawmakers – whose constituents were entering UT Austin as never before under the 10 percent plan – successfully beat UT’s proposed cap. Luis Figueroa of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund opposed the limit, saying, "There’s no better merit system than the top 10 percent plan."
In 2009, as automatic admissions continued to grow, UT Austin was successful in imposing a higher automatic admission cap – at 75 percent – and this had the effect of limiting enrollment to the
top 8 percent in every high school class. The legislation also required UT Austin to provide a demographic breakdown by race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status of top 8 percent vs. discretionary admits.
The report submitted by Powers on December 31, 2011 suggests that legislators representing minority and low-income constituencies were right to worry about how a cap on automatic admissions at 40 percent or 50 percent would have affected minority enrollment. In 2011, black, Latino and Asian students did better under the top 8 percent plan, while whites did substantially better under the discretionary plan, even though the latter includes the university’s affirmative action program. Twenty-nine percent of those admitted under the top 8 percent plan were Hispanic, compared with just 14 percent under the discretionary plan. Blacks represented 6 percent of those in the 8 percent plan, but 5 percent under the discretionary plan. Asian Americans also did better under the 8 percent plan. The big beneficiaries of discretionary admissions? White students, who accounted for 58 percent of admits compared with 41 percent under the top 8 percent plan.
The automatic admissions program, which UT Austin has continually sought to limit, also benefits low-income students, while Austin's discretionary admissions program benefits rich kids. In 2011, 9 percent of top 8 percent admits were from families with annual household incomes below $20,000 compared with just 3 percent of the discretionary admits. Among those making between $20,000 and just under $40,000, representation among top 8 percent admits was twice as high (14 percent) as in the discretionary pool (7 percent). Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale, students from wealthy families (making more than $200,000 per year) were far more likely to be represented among discretionary admits (29 percent) than among top 8 percent admits (13 percent).
There are parallel data involving parental levels of education. In 2011, automatic admits were three times as likely to have a most educated parent lacking a four-year degree (33 percent) compared
with discretionary admits (11 percent). On the flip side, 34 percent of automatic admits had a parent with a graduate degree compared with 54 percent of discretionary admits.
While some might worry that the low-income and working-class students admitted under the automatic admissions plan would struggle at UT Austin, research by Sunny Niu and Marta Tienda of Princeton University concluded, "Compared with white students ranked at or below the third decile, top 10 percent black and Hispanic enrollees arrive with lower average test scores yet consistently perform as well or better in grades, first-year persistence, and four-year graduation likelihood."
How would a percentage plan work elsewhere? In an amicus brief in support of racial preferences, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill said it had modeled the effects of a top 10 percent plan in North Carolina. The brief conceded that racial and ethnic diversity would actually increase modestly – from 15 percent to 16 percent "non-white and underrepresented students" – but claimed the plan would have a devastating effect on the academic readiness of students. The average SAT score, UNC fretted, would decline from 1317 to 1262. But is this really such a terrible result? According to data from the College Board, this very modest drop would take the average SAT at Chapel Hill from the 91st percentile to the 86th.
Of course, percentage plans won’t work at private institutions drawing upon a national pool and will not produce as much college diversity in states with more integrated high schools. And there are important reasons that university administrators should have discretion in admissions to build a class that includes violinists and chemists and the like. But socioeconomic affirmative action plans can work at private institutions and unfortunately, our nation’s high schools are becoming more economically and racially segregated, not less.
Moreover, the Supreme Court has long held that discretion to build a class is not unlimited. It does not include the right to discriminate against students of color, and in the Fisher case, the Supreme Court is likely to further reduce the discretion of university officials to provide racial preferences in favor of underrepresented minority students. This would force universities to find other ways to promote diversity. As Texas demonstrated, some of those alternatives can produce even higher levels or racial, ethnic and economic diversity than holistic review, opening the doors to low-income, working-class and minority students in a way that discretionary affirmative action programs never have.