The Supreme Court agreed last month to hear a case on affirmative action, and many speculate that the conservative-leaning Court may overturn a previous decision allowing the use of race as a factor in college admissions.
As much as the buzzword “diversity” is used around college campuses, we often take exposure to different races, cultures and backgrounds for granted. College education is a collective undertaking, but if the Supreme Court decides to oppose affirmative action policies, it could ultimately detract from the American undergraduate experience.
In the 2003 case of Grutter vs. Bollinger, the Court upheld affirmative action policies at the University of Michigan Law School, ruling that academic institutions should have a legitimate interest in promoting diversity. The case slated for review this fall was brought by Abigail Noel Fisher, who was denied admission to the University of Texas.
When affirmative action was first instituted in the 1960s, it sought to address institutional inequalities. Unfortunately, discrimination persists in many areas of society, including the education system. But the necessity of academic affirmative action is not predicated on historical inequality alone.
Some critics of affirmative action in college admissions argue that an applicant’s socioeconomic background is more significant than his or her race. Others claim that affluent minority applicants should not benefit from affirmative action. But some of those same critics recognize that the representation of women or international students in a classroom discussion is important, regardless of whether those students happen to be wealthy. This paradox results from their viewing the minority experience through a narrow lens of economics without consideration for the cultural aspects of racial identity.
Of course, affirmative action cannot merely designate quotas; racial quotas for colleges were abolished by the Supreme Court in 1978. As universities have demonstrated for more than three decades, they can responsibly consider characteristics such as race when making admissions decisions without resorting to a quota system.
Affirmative action is not charity for some and punishment for others; it is a necessary measure that serves the best interests of all members of an academic institution, and it ought to be preserved. Should the Supreme Court choose to rule against affirmative action, the undergraduate experience will be severely damaged.