Blog: Latino Ed Beat

Should Affirmative Action Help Wealthier Students?

Critics of a University of Texas at Austin race-based admission policy claim it gives an edge to minority students from affluent families. 

Should race-based college admission policies prioritize minority students from affluent families over those from low-income households? 

That’s the question at the heart of a heated debate as the Supreme Court prepares to hear another round of arguments in the high-profile Fisher v. University of Texas affirmative action case next week.

The University of Texas, University of California and other premier state universities have been operating under a qualitative diversity policy, Washington correspondent David G. Savage writes for the Los Angeles Times. Critics argue that the policy effectively “gives an extra edge” to middle-class Latino and black students who attend top-performing high schools. 

Under Texas law, the state offers race-neutral admissions guarantee to the state’s public colleges for high school students who score in the top 10 percent of their high school class. The stakes are higher for entrance to The University of Texas at Austin. Freshman in 2016 will need to be in the top 8 percent of their high school class for automatic admission, and the requirements will change to 7 percent the following fall.

The policy aims to increase diversity at the college level in a state where high schools are largely segregated, supporters say. 

The policy, which accounts for nearly 80 percent of the university’s admits, has resulted in an influx of minority students to the Austin campus, mainly from schools in low-income areas in the Rio Grande Valley and in big cities such as Houston, Dallas and San Antonio, Savage writes. For the remaining percentage of its admissions, the University of Texas does take the candidate’s race into consideration. But critics argue these practices push out highly qualified students from suburban-area schools where there is tougher competition. Abigail Fisher, the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case, claims she was denied admission in 2008 because she is white, despite her 3.6 GPA.

Institutions insist such admission policies as “qualitative diversity” are vital to preserving academic standards and combating stereotypes about minorities, like “Hispanics come from ‘the valley’ and African Americans come from the ‘inner city,’” Savage reports. He writes that critics of the policy say it is not only unfair to white students from the same schools of similar standing, but that it also contradicts the idea that affirmative action is intended to benefit disadvantaged students.

Fisher’s lawyers argue that the practice is counter-intuitive and suggested that the university wants the ability to admit wealthier minorities, rather than minorities from economically disadvantaged backgrounds — a claim UT-Austin denies. 

The year Fisher was denied admission to the university, Hispanics made up 16 percent of the freshman class. Last year, the school’s undergraduate student population was 21 percent Hispanic. It’s unclear if affirmative action is responsible for leading the growth, but without it, the administration is unsure if it will be able to maintain a diverse student body. 

“The educational benefits of diversity include, but are not limited to, bringing unique and direct perspectives to the issues and topics discussed and debated in classrooms, promoting cross-racial understanding, breaking down racial and ethnic stereotypes, and creating an environment in which students do not feel like spokespersons for their race,” officials wrote in a brief addressed to the Supreme Court. 

Justices will hear arguments in the case on Thursday, Dec. 9. Many believe this could signal the end of affirmative action and the use of race in college admissions.