As High Court Prepares to Hear Affirmative-Action Case, Issues of Race Equality Remain

The Supreme Court will hear arguments on Wednesday over the legitimacy of using affirmative action as a factor in college admissions, a decision that could potentially redefine how U.S. higher education approaches admissions as a means to further diversify its student body.

(Related Atlantic Story: How Affirmative Action Shaped the Current Supreme Court)

The case stems from a lawsuit against the University of Texas (Austin), which was sued by prospective student Abigail Fisher, who is white. Fisher alleges she was denied admission in 2008 because of her race, and the lawsuit seeks to remove race as a factor in admissions.

The university has said that Fisher would not have been accepted regardless of her race, but it maintains its affirmative-action program is part of a larger review that's necessary to build a diverse student body.

The high court's upcoming decision could potentially overturn a previous case in 2003 that ruled in favor of using affirmative action in college admissions. The 5-4 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger largely supports UT's stance, finding that race could be used as one of many factors in a "holistic review" of applicants.

If overturned, many of the nation's public universities would have to do away with their diversity programs. Private universities that receive federal funding also would have to follow suit.

The Obama administration filed a brief this summer supporting UT's admissions policy. Over the past year, various educators and civil-rights advocates have showed their support by sending their own friend-of-the-court briefs.

But it's a toss-up whether the university will win its case. Five justices have a history of opposing the practice, and Justice Elena Kagan, who likely would have supported the practice, has recused herself.

The validity of affirmative-action programs has long been debated by scholars and civil-rights advocates. A recent report by the Century Foundation found that race-neutral admissions processes can work to maintain student diversity. The research found that including socioeconomic factors, such as class and income, in school admissions processes can help diversify a student body.

However, blacks and Hispanics are still less likely than their white peers to enroll in highly selective colleges; as a result, they are still severely underrepresented in some of the nation's top universities.

Even so, for the first time in 2011, Hispanic students became the largest minority group to enroll in four-year colleges and universities, accounting for nearly 16.5 percent of the student population.

And in 2010, both Hispanic and black students made modest gains in graduation rates from higher-education institutions. However, many of the schools boasting such numbers have implemented specific programs--apart from their admissions processes--aimed at boosting the success of minority students.