As Supreme Court Weighs Race and Admissions, Area Schools Watch and Wait

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The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday on whether the University of Texas at Austin wrongly discriminated against a white woman who sought admission in 2008. The decision could have broad implications, and a wide range of interested parties in New York City are watching the case closely.

At the heart of the case is the way the University of Texas diversifies its student body. First, it accepts the top 10 percent of students in all high schools across the state. It fills roughly 85 percent of its freshman class this way. The remaining applicants then compete for a small share of open spaces based on personal achievements, academics and race and ethnicity.

Fordham and New York University submitted amicus briefs in support of the University of Texas. In a Catholic Blog Post, Fordham President Joseph McShane wrote “We try to develop in our students an understanding of, and reverence for, cultures and ways of life other than their own. We believe that such an understanding and reverence cannot be achieved absent a truly multiracial, multicultural student body.”

Many universities and colleges argue education is enriched by students being exposed to a variety of cultures, ideas and backgrounds.

But Heather McDonald from the Manhattan Institute maintains the importance of race is overplayed. 

“I think that the university’s obsession with race and ethnicity as the central access of human experience is very narrow and trivializing,” she said, adding that at many colleges self-segregation occurs.

McDonald believes affirmative action policies result in minority students being admitted into colleges they are ill prepared for academically. She points to California’s state system and says graduation rates improved among blacks once affirmative action was banned in the state.

But researchers say while graduation rates among minorities did improve, there could be several reasons why, including an effort to better "match" students to campuses.

The View from the Classroom

At the City University of New York, 55 percent of the undergraduate student body last fall was either black or Hispanic. At NYU, by contrast, 15 percent of the incoming freshman last fall fell into those categories.

Gabby Cohen, a sophomore at NYU, says she does benefit from having a mix of students in her class. But she does think affirmative action can sometime be abused.

“I also know a kid who got into Wharton at UPenn and put on his application that he was African American because his great-great-grandfather was African American,” she said.

The last time the Supreme Court ruled on an affirmative action case was 2003, when a white student named Barbara Grutter alleged the University of Michigan’s Law School weighed race too heavily when determining admissions giving blacks and Latinos an unfair advantage over her. The Supreme Court upheld Michigan’s admissions policy and ruled that diversifying a student body was a legitimate goal as long as race alone did not determine an applicant’s admission. 

Lee Bollinger, the current president of Columbia University was the president of University of Michigan at the time and the named defendant in the case, said diversity has been crucial to the success of higher education.

“If the majority of the justices were to take a look again at the Grutter case and to overturn Grutter and have a new approach interpreting the 14th Amendment as prohibiting considerations of race and ethnicity,” Bollinger said, “that would have profound effects on higher education.”

Bollinger predicts dramatic declines in blacks, Latinos and Native American enrollment at major universities if affirmative action policies are banned or weakened.