From top left, clockwise: students at George Washington University (Reuters); the campus at Swarthmore College (AP), a student at Washington University of St. Louis (Reuters), a Millsaps College psychology major (AP)
Affirmative action in higher education is once again on the chopping block. The United States Supreme Court is poised to issue its ruling in the Fisher v. Texas case, in which a white student complained that she was denied admission to the University of Texas because of her race. Much as with earlier landmark decisions, the Court is likely to chip away at any program that explicitly puts more than the lightest thumb on the scale in favor of minorities.
For many of us in higher ed, there's a collective gulp when we consider what's at stake. We've seen affirmative action's benefits--imperfect, yet crucial for generations of students. But this potential sea change also presents a rare chance for those of us at private colleges and universities to consider how we might contribute to preserving the values and advantages of affirmative action into the future.
Public systems have typically been fastest off the mark when major policy decisions have limited race as a factor in admissions. Several states launched "percentage plans," which guarantee the top 4-20% of graduates in each high school access to a state university. Because high school districts in the United States are shamefully segregated by race and ethnicity, this merit-based strategy automatically fosters racial diversity at the same time as it increases representation across a range of socio-economic and geographic backgrounds.