Growing up on a farm and running for student body are character-building experiences that deserve a place on college applications. So is being a person of color in America.
Yesterday morning, the Supreme Court heard a case challenging University of Texas at Austin's inclusive admissions policy. In Fisher v. Texas, Abigail Fisher, a white woman was denied admission to the university. Her attorney put forth the crux of her argument in Court: "[W]e don't believe [the school has] shown any necessity for doing what they were doing.... They didn't consider alternatives."
Unfortunately, given how inextricably linked a person's race is to their identity, these policies do remain a necessity. Playing the flute, growing up on a farm, and running cross country are all character-building experiences. So is being a person of color in the United States. Research finds that people of color are still underrepresented in institutions of higher education, hold a smaller percentage of political leadership positions, and have lower incomes than whites. All of these trends exist even within the same socioeconomic class. Even after controlling for income, black and Latino students are dramatically underrepresented in the most selective colleges. And white Americans report better overall health than people of color, even after taking into consideration poverty, education, and unemployment. These disparities are not accidental; they are the legacy of societal choices and conscious policy.
UT Austin's admissions system -- at issue in Fisher -- recognizes these disparities and tries to correct for them. UT admits 85 percent of its students through a plan that automatically admits the top 10 percent of students from all Texas high schools. If this approach creates racial diversity, it is only because of the persistent segregation in public schools. To diversify the approximately 15 percent of the class remaining, the admissions team tries to consider a wide range of other qualifications -- not only an applicant's essays, extracurricular activities, and awards, but also his or her work experience, family responsibilities, language ability, and, finally, socioeconomic status and race.
Abigail Fisher, the plaintiff, was not in the top 10 percent of her class when she applied to UT as a Texas high school student in 2008, so her application was weighed according to all of these criteria. She was denied admission and is now is challenging the acceptance of 49 named students of color that same year.
On the surface, Fisher vs. UT asks a simple question: Is it constitutional for a university to consider race when evaluating an applicant's personal background? But underneath this question is a deeper one: Can a student's racial background race really be separated from who he or she is as an applicant and a human being?
As part of its application process, UT Austin asks students to write about "an issue of importance to you ... [and] the significance of that issue to yourself, your family, your community, or your generation." The University of Michigan asks applicants to "describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you." Almost all college applications include similar essay questions.