On April 22 the United States Supreme Court, by a vote of 6 to 2, declined to overrule an amendment to Michigan’s state constitution that says its public universities, in the admission of students, “shall not discriminate against or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin.” The amendment had been passed by a majority of voters in 2006 in order to shut down an admissions program at the University of Michigan intended to increase the diversity of the student population. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy stated that the case before the court is “not about the constitutionality, or the merits, of race-conscious admissions policies in higher education,” but about how “voters in the States may choose to prohibit the consideration of such racial preferences.”
Even on those grounds, Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued in a 58-page dissent that the Michigan amendment violates the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees to all people “equal protection of the laws.” In this case, the board of the University of Michigan, consistent with the court’s decrees on integrating housing and schools, had sought to protect the rights of minorities to receive higher education. Furthermore, equal protection jurisprudence focuses on the process by which all citizens, including racial minorities, participate equally in self-government. Historically, minorities have been squeezed out of the process. Making it more difficult for a member of a racial minority to attend college, says Justice Sotomayor, is like making one competitor in a race “run twice as far” as the others.
Justice Sotomayor is an eloquent defender of what she calls “race-sensitive admissions,” but she is facing an uphill battle. Public opinion has turned strongly against affirmative action policies (by a factor of two to one), and many states are now prepared to pass their own laws against the practice. Michigan, California, Arizona, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Washington State, Florida, Utah and Tennessee have similar bans in place or in the planning stages. Meanwhile, in last month’s decision and others, the Supreme Court has severely circumscribed the ability of public colleges and universities to consider race in admissions decisions. (Private schools are free to consider race or any other factor in offering admittance.)
Citizens who respect the court and the democratic process but also value diversity in education face a quandary: How can policies be implemented that promote the goal of educating citizens and bringing them into the process of self-government, as rightfully endorsed by Justice Sotomayor? Can these goals be achieved without the aid of race-based admissions policies?
The answer is yes, but it will require work. More and more educators now endorse class or income level as the primary factor for consideration in college and university admissions. They argue that if accompanied by vigorous recruitment, class-based admissions policies can help to bring diversity to institutions of higher education while also serving an underrepresented community, like students from poor or middle-class backgrounds. In her new book, Place, Not Race, Sheryll Cashin proposes that we reimagine affirmative action. For universities she suggests alternate strategies to achieve a common goal: recruit students from single-parent and less-educated families; give full scholarships to students from inner-city schools; and follow the example of Texas in requiring their public universities to accept the top 10 percent of students from every high school.
These are all good ideas. At a time when inequality is on the rise and college tuitions are climbing ever upward, college admission officers have a responsibility to find ways to bring students of all economic backgrounds into their institutions. Increasing economic diversity and maintaining ethnic diversity without racial preferences will be difficult. Michigan has seen a drop in minority enrollment since the state amendment was passed, but according to the Century Foundation, other states have been able to preserve racial diversity by focusing on economic diversity. More state universities should try this approach. If a college can afford to recruit high-quality athletes, then surely it can find ways to recruit more heavily from poor and minority communities.
The role of the university, in addition to career preparation, is to develop the characteristics of good citizenship. If a student lives and studies only with classmates who look and think like himself or herself and come from the same economic background, a major component of a university education is lost. When universities deliberately attract diverse student bodies, it is not just minority and disadvantaged students who benefit, but all students and indeed our democracy. For the good of society, educators must redouble their efforts to make the world of higher education truly diverse, in the richest sense of that word.