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Why the Supreme Court Needs to Uphold UT Austin’s Admissions Plan

On Wednesday, October 10, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on the constitutionality of UT Austin’s undergraduate affirmative-action admissions program. The vast majority of students are admitted under the state’s Top Ten Percent Plan, which requires UT Austin to admit all Texas residents who rank in the top ten percent of their high-school graduating classes. The University also admits a small percentage of its students through a separate process that involves careful, holistic review of all aspects of an applicant’s qualifications, including such things as leadership experience, special talents, work experience, community service, languages spoken at home, family responsibilities, extracurricular activities, and race. It is this modest consideration of race as part of a holistic review that is before the Supreme Court.

Less than ten years ago, in its review of the University of Michigan Law School’s admissions plan, the Supreme Court outlined the many benefits of diversity in higher education. The Court recognized that racially diverse educational environments reduce stereotypes by exposing students to diverse individuals. That diversity helps students encounter a wide range of ideas and experiences, which improve the quality of the education that they receive and help prepare them to be leaders in an increasingly diverse society. Historically, affirmative-action policies have promoted not only racial but also gender diversity, helping eliminate barriers to women’s entrance into historically male-dominated fields such as engineering and computer science. And many educational institutions, and many state universities in particular, have come to value the benefits of diversity as being critical to the educational mission of cultivating civic, government and business leaders.

The ability of colleges and universities to strive to create equal opportunity across their campuses will have a particular impact on women. For that reason, the National Women’s Law Center, together with 24 organizations, filed a friend of the court brief in this case.  But achieving meaningful diversity on college campuses will not happen on its own. Today, as educational institutions attempt to build the next generation of leaders prepared for a diverse society, they must often confront the continuing problem of educational programs that lack diversity, meaning that many students are deprived of the accompanying benefits. Women and minorities, and especially women of color, continue to be largely absent from many important educational programs, particularly in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, and remain clustered in traditional fields of study such as education and health care. For example, Black women account for less than 4% of computer-science majors and less than 1 percent of engineering majors. And Hispanic women are less than 2% of computer-science and engineering majors.

Moreover, assumptions about race and gender have served as serious barriers to the entrance of women of color to these historically male-dominated and higher-wage fields. Studies have shown that individuals who believe themselves to be unbiased nonetheless will often unconsciously assign unfavorable traits based on race and gender. A recent Yale study confirms this point: When identical resumes were submitted to science faculty at universities around the country, female students were viewed less favorably than male students, were less likely to be offered mentorships and jobs, and when they did, they offered female students lower salaries on average.

The Yale study illustrates in stark terms that unconscious stereotyping is alive and well at universities.  And the lack of diversity in some programs and classrooms only exacerbates this problem. Indeed, before UT Austin implemented its holistic admissions process, 79% of classes had one or sometimes zero Black students. If universities are to fulfill their mission of educating the next generation of leaders, far more work will be necessary to ensure that the effects of these stereotypes do not undercut the complementary mission of ensuring that all students of every race and gender have a fair shot at our nation’s institutions of higher education. The sort of individualized admissions process before the Supreme Court in Fisher is therefore a critical component to achieving the many benefits of a diverse student body – which in the end benefits not just the university, but the entire country.

It's time for change, and we must act now. Time's up.