The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on October 10, 2012, on the affirmative action case, Fisher vs. University of Texas. In advance of the arguments, Marta Tienda, Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, weighed in on this important case:
Affirmative Action and the Top 10% Law—Setting the Record Straight, by Marta Tienda
In her lawsuit against the University of Texas that will be heard by the Supreme Court next week, Abigail Fisher alleges that she was denied admission because the university gave preference to minority candidates with lower academic credentials.
The court has heard similar arguments before. What makes Fisher’s case unique is a state law that guarantees university admission to all students who graduate near the top of their high school class.
Since the university automatically admits the top graduates from all Texas high schools, Fisher argues, there’s no need for it to consider the race of other applicants to achieve diversity.
The facts reveal otherwise.
It's true that the number of black and Hispanic students enrolled at UT rose after the state’s automatic admission 'Top 10 Percent' law was adopted in 1998. But that growth occurred at the same time that Texas high school graduation cohorts dramatically increased in size and the percentage of whites in the graduating classes fell below 50 percent.
Enrollment rates of black and Hispanic students were actually lower under the Top 10 Percent plan compared to the period before the admission guarantee was used. Representation actually worsened.
The automatic admission plan was introduced following a judicial ban on affirmative action. It was designed to increase geographic, economic and ethno-racial diversity at the state’s public postsecondary institutions. The law increased geographic representation at UT, but also saturated the Austin campus with students qualified for automatic admission, leaving a limited number of available slots to allocate using holistic file review.
That the State of Texas has underinvested in higher education made access to its public flagships ever more competitive for all state residents. Between 1998, when the Top 10 Percent Law went into effect, and 2008, when Ms. Fisher sought admission to UT, the number of high school graduates rose 34 percent.
Over the same period total enrollment in all public four-year institutions grew 28 percent; at UT, total enrollment grew by a meager 2.2 percent, and undergraduate enrollment was virtually flat, indicating that the Austin campus had exceeded its carrying capacity well before 2008. Ms. Fisher, like thousands of other college-eligible Texans of all races, is the victim of the state’s underinvestment in postsecondary education, not race-sensitive admission decisions.
The top 10% admission regime attempted to capitalize on pervasive residential and school segregation to increase enrollment of black and Hispanic students. Even at high schools where 80% of the student body is black or Hispanic, white students are more likely to qualify for the admission guarantee than their black or Hispanic classmates.
In fact the law did little to equalize access to the public flagships for students eligible for the admission guarantee: graduates from high schools where black and Hispanic students constitute the majority of the student body were only 30 to 50 percent as likely as statistically similar graduates from integrated schools to enroll at one of the public flagships.
In 2003, the Supreme Court revisited the issue of race-conscious admissions and affirmed the constitutionality of narrowly tailored consideration of race. After that ruling, The University of Texas revisited its own admissions policy and supplemented the top 10 percent law with the holistic admission policy that Fisher is now challenging — and which is vital to achieving diversity.
By itself, the percentage plan cannot and does not increase ethno-racial diversity at the flagship campuses. Race-conscious holistic review is a necessary adjunct to achieve this compelling state interest.