U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Reaffirms the Importance of Diversity in College Admissions

Statement of Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and
Educational Fund, Inc. on the Court’s Decision in Fisher v. University of Texas 

Today’s decision by the Supreme Court in Fisher v. University of Texas is a huge victory for civil rights and equality in our nation. The Court’s ruling upholds longstanding precedent and will allow continued progress in the effort to bring equal opportunity to college campuses. This is a victory for all Americans.  

The Justices preserved the Court’s well-established precedent affirming the right of colleges and universities to pursue racial diversity as part of their educational mission. The Supreme Court has now ruled several times that universities have the right to strive for diversity on their campuses. Today’s decision sends a strong message to those who continuously seek to undermine racial diversity that the Court will not waver and take our country backwards.

This is a hard-fought and deserved win. We hope that this decision will end the thirty-year campaign by anti-affirmative activists to dismantle efforts by colleges and universities to provide access and opportunity to students of all backgrounds.

Diversity and equal opportunity have become bedrock American values. At a time when our country is increasingly divided, university campuses provide critical opportunities for students of diverse backgrounds to interact, learn about one another and become informed citizens and leaders. This decision affirms this principle.

Studies have demonstrated that the quality of education improves when people of diverse backgrounds learn from one another. Briefs filed by military leaders and leaders of Fortune 500 companies emphasized the importance of diversity at colleges and universities to building leaders who are prepared to lead diverse work teams. Racial disparities in education continue to limit opportunity for children across America.

Today’s decision leaves in place the ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which upheld the admissions policy at the University of Texas at Austin. The federal appeals court ruling, which remains in effect, found that the University of Texas’s efforts to increase diversity were constitutional and in keeping with court precedent.

Justice Kagan was recused.

Today’s decision sends a strong signal that colleges and universities can continue to rely on the Court’s prior cases, including its landmark 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger. Grutter recognized the educational benefits of diversity and affirmed the constitutionality of a modest consideration of race as one of many factors in the admission process. Today, the Court found that University of Texas clearly and precisely articulated its compelling interests in diversity, and that its particular plan and consideration of race was necessary to achieve its goals.

As the U.S. Court of Appeals noted, the University of Texas admissions policy involves an even more modest consideration of race than the University of Michigan Law School policy that the Court previously upheld in Grutter. Most students at the University of Texas are admitted under the Top Ten Percent Plan, a program created by a state law which requires the University to automatically accept all Texas residents who rank in the top ten percent of their high school class. For the remainder of its applicants, UT undertakes an individualized “whole-file” review to assemble a class that is both exceptionally academically qualified and broadly diverse. This process allows the school to consider a student’s race along with multiple other criteria, such as essays, leadership qualities, extracurricular activities, awards, work experience, community service, family responsibilities, socio-economic status, and languages spoken in the home. The holistic review process does not award any fixed points to racial minorities; nor does it involve set aside admissions slots for minority students. Quotas have been banned for many years. Instead, the policy is sufficiently flexible to take into consideration the racial background of any applicant, including white students, based on their unique backgrounds and experiences. It is this carefully thought out program that the Court upheld today. As Justice Kennedy stated, “[T]here is no dispute that race is but a ‘factor of a factor of a factor’ in the holistic-review calculus,” Justice Kennedy said.

It is worth noting that the case was brought by Abigail Fisher, an applicant who would not have been admitted to University of Texas based on her academic record. It was Ms. Fisher’s second time having her case against the University heard by the United States Supreme Court, despite the view of many court-watchers that Ms. Fisher lacked standing to bring her claim. 

Ensuring diversity is particularly important at flagship state universities like UT, which have a special responsibility to ensure that “the path to leadership” is “visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity,” as the Court stated in Grutter.

Prior experiments have demonstrated that race-neutral admissions alone are insufficient to achieve meaningful diversity and opportunity on college campuses. After California banned the consideration of race in college admissions, the percentage of African-American admitted freshmen dropped by about half at California’s flagship schools, UCLA and UC Berkeley. After Michigan’s ban, the University of Michigan saw the percentage of enrolled African-American undergraduate students decline by about a third from 2006 with the number hovering around 4.5% for the past five years.

While some opponents of race-conscious admissions offer socio-economic class as a race-neutral alternative, it is important for colleges ensure their doors are open to both low-income students and people of color. Our country benefits when every individual has a fair shot to climb up the ladder to opportunity. Today, the Court has made clear that universities are not limited to such restrictive and ineffective measures.

A broad coalition asked the Supreme Court to support the critical importance of diversity in higher education, including: scores of Fortune 100 companies and leading American businesses; a group of retired military leaders; the U.S. Solicitor General; 19 states; dozens of Texas legislators; numerous universities, colleges, and educational associations; and more than 800 social scientists. This broad-based coalition also includes dozens of national civil rights organizations, including Asian Americans Advancing Justice, the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF), Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which filed a brief on behalf of the UT Black Student Alliance and African-American alumni of UT.

In the wake of this important victory, we urge supporters of equal opportunity to continue to stand together and keep the ball moving forward. Now that the Supreme Court has ruled, we must ensure that colleges and universities go beyond simply recognizing the value of diversity and implement policies that will further diversity on campuses.  

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Founded in 1940, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) is the nation’s first civil and human rights law organization and has been completely separate from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) since 1957—although LDF was originally founded by the NAACP and shares its commitment to equal rights. LDF’s Thurgood Marshall Institute is a multi-disciplinary and collaborative hub within LDF that launches targeted campaigns and undertakes innovative research to shape the civil rights narrative. In media attributions, please refer to us as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund or LDF.