A pair of Supreme Court cases that consider the constitutionality of using race as a factor in college admissions could have broad impacts on how universities across the country admit students.
On Monday the Supreme Court agreed to examine the constitutionality of a Michigan law that prohibits colleges in the state from considering race in public college admissions, and it is currently deliberating a similar case involving the University of Texas.
A U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the Michigan law created burdens on racial minorities and that it violated the 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection. But conservatives, including Michigan's Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette, have argued that using race as an admissions factor is wrong, and that decisions should be based on merit.
While the Supreme Court is not scheduled to hear the Michigan case before October, meaning a ruling wouldn't be likely until next year, the court is currently considering a similar affirmative action case. Fisher v. University of Texas also questions whether colleges and universities can give preferential treatment to racial minorities in the admissions process. A ruling on that case is expected sometime between now and June.
The lower courts that previously examined the case have ruled in favor of affirmative action.
As Reuters noted, "That the court agreed to hear the Michigan case before deciding the Texas case is unusual. The court's normal practice is to wait until it has issued a ruling before agreeing to hear another case on a related issue. This may mean that the court is struggling to decide the Texas case, or that the ruling could be coming as soon as this week."
The two cases could ultimately have broad impacts on the overall practice of affirmative action. If the Supreme Court agrees with Fisher in the Texas case, that ruling could end the process of providing some advantage to underrepresented minorities at colleges and universities across the nation.
Latinos currently benefit from affirmative action, particularly in Texas, but it's not necessarily race-based. The University of Texas, the largest college in the state, admits the top 10 percent of each class at every high school in the state, regardless of race. Some high schools are mostly black or mostly Hispanic, and consequently the program, as the New York Times put it, has "produced substantial racial and ethnic diversity." Twenty-six percent of freshmen enrolling at the school in fall 2011 were Hispanic, and 6 percent were black. The state overall is 38 percent Hispanic and 12 percent black.
Where affirmative action comes into play is in regard to students who fall outside the top 10 percent. Race is used as a factor in determining which of those students are accepted. Fisher, a white student, fell into this latter category and said she felt discriminated against on the basis of race.
Some states, such as New York, support affirmative action. Others, such as New Hampshire, have banned the practice. Opponents of affirmative action have argued that the practice creates a disadvantage for white students, while proponents say it helps make up for inequalities and past discrimination. Latinos and African-Americans are far less likely than whites to pursue higher education, and they are more likely to grow up in poverty.
Of course there is debate about whether affirmative action even works, and critics say a more effective policy would look beyond race.