Report Backs Race-Neutral Alternatives for Affirmative Action

By Mark Walsh — October 04, 2012 3 min read
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With the U.S. Supreme Court about to take up a case involving race preferences in college admissions, a report issued Thursday by the Century Foundation called for more state universities to turn to class- and income-based forms of affirmative action to maintain student diversity.

“The winds of change are blowing,” says the report by the New York City-based Century Foundation. “The explicit and heavy reliance on race in admissions—and the avoidance of deeper issues of class inequality—may soon come to an end.”

The report by scholar Richard D. Kahlenberg says that most state universities that were forced by various circumstances to eliminate race preferences have been successful in using class- and income-based admissions systems to maintain diverse student enrollments.

“On the whole, states have been remarkably successful in preserving—or even exceeding—the levels of racial and ethnic diversity found before the use of race and ethnicity was eliminated as an admissions criteria,” says the report, “A Better Affirmative Action: State Universities that Created Alternatives to Racial Preferences.”

The report was released at a forum in Washington and discussed by several advocates and scholars, most of whom are tied to briefs that have been filed in either side of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin (Case No. 11-345). The Supreme Court hears arguments Oct. 10 in the case, which concerns a challenge to the university’s consideration of race in undergraduate admissions.

“It’s just a matter of time before the use of race will be ... prohibited,” Ward Connerly, the former California Board of Regents member who helped bring about a prohibition on race preferences in education and other government services in that state, said here. Connerly endorsed the Century Foundation’s call for greater use of socioeconomic alternatives.

Debo P. Adegbile, the acting president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which backs the University of Texas’s use of race, said there was some validity to encouraging race-neutral alternatives. But citing the Supreme Court’s 2003 ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger, which embraced racial diversity as a compelling state interest, he said “the pathway to opportunity [via higher education]] is as important today as it was nine short years ago.”

Lani Guinier, a professor at Harvard Law School who also backs the use of race in admissions, said it was important to remember that a diverse student body is meant to serve the larger purpose of U.S. higher education to “promote merit in service of a democracy.”

Richard Sander, a law professor and economist at the University of California-Los Angeles, took issue with some of Kahlenberg’s data and said that in some places where racial preferences have been legally eliminated, race is still considered in admissions as a matter of “inertia and secret agendas” among college administrators. Sander has filed a brief in the case with journalist Stuart Taylor—technically on neither side—that is based on their new book, Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It.

Kahlenberg, a longtime advocate for using socioeconomic factors in admissions, looked at 10 universities in eight states that relied on race-neutral alternatives and found that for seven, the proportion of African-American and Latino students met or exceeded the proportion achieved when those schools did use race. Those institutions were Texas A&M University, the University of Arizona, the University of Florida, the University of Georgia, the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, UT-Austin, and the University of Washington.

The three exceptions were UCLA, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Those institutions compete for students on more of a national playing field, Kahlenberg said, and thus face competition from elite competitors that have been able to use racial preferences.

The report has detailed profiles on the eight states and their experiences with race-neutral alternatives.

The Century Foundation promoted Thursday’s discussion as the “definitive affirmative action panel.” Of course, the real definitive panel discussion on the future of racial preferences occurs next Wednesday at the U.S. Supreme Court.

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A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.