The University of Texas filed a 55-page brief with the Supreme Court this week, clarifying how race factors in to its admissions process. The filing is a direct response to a lawsuit challenging the university’s admissions policy. The case, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin is one of the biggest on the court’s docket next year. In 2008, high school senior Abigail Fisher, a white student from Sugar Land, sued UT after she was denied admission to the incoming freshman class. She maintained that less qualified minority candidates were admitted ahead of her.
Here’s what you need to know about the case and UT’s admissions policies ahead of the oral arguments, which are slated for October 10.
A brief history of UT’s admissions policy
In their brief, UT’s lawyers give the Court a granular look at the university’s admissions policies over time. The bulk of UT’s applicants (sixty to eighty percent) are admitted through the top ten percent law, enacted by the state legislature in 1997 in response to the Hopwood v. Texas case in which the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals barred the university from using affirmative action in admissions. From 1998 to 2004, the remaining places in the incoming freshman class were selected using a “full-file review” process that “considered numerous individual characteristics (but not race.)”
But in 2003, the Supreme Court ruled in Grutter v. Bollinger that the University of Michigan Law School had a “compelling interest” in having a diverse student body, effectively overturning Hopwood v. Texas. In response to Grutter, UT tweaked its admission policy in 2004 to “allow for the consideration of race in the context of the holistic review already conducted for students not admitted under the top 10% law.” Under this new policy, race is considered as one of many factors and is not “assigned any independent weight” and the school does not maintain “a quota or target for any racial group.”
So, how are candidates outside of the top ten percent selected today?
UT’s conducts a “holistic review” of every application in which candidates are assigned an “academic index” score or PA (consisting of class rank and SAT scores) and a “Personal Achievement Index” score or PAI (based on two essays scored on a race-blind basis and a “Personal Achievement Score,” or PAS. The PAS is where race is taken into account:
The PAS score ranges from 1 to 6 as well, and is based on holistic consideration of six equally-weighted factors: leadership potential, extracurricular activities, honors and awards, work experience, community service, and special circumstances. The “special circumstances” factor is broken down into seven attributes, including socioeconomic considerations, and—as of 2005—an applicant’s race. Race is one of seven components of a single factor in the PAS score, which comprises one third of the PAI, which is one of two numerical values (PAI and AI) that places a student on the admissions grid, from which students are admitted race-blind in groups. In other words, race is “a factor of a factor of a factor of a factor” in UT’s holistic review.
Once the school has both a AI and a PAI score for an applicant, the two points are plotted on a matrix. Admissions officers then “draw a stair-step line on the matrix, dividing the cells of applicants who will be admitted from those that will be denied. For each cell, admission is an all-or-nothing proposition: all the applicants within a cell are either admitted or denied.”
UT maintains that this “modest consideration of race” is fair and backed up by the Court’s decision in Grutter. The Court, UT’s lawyers argue, has “recognized that universities have a compelling interest in promoting student body diversity, and that a university may consider the race of applicants in an individualized and modest manner— such that race is just one of many characteristics that form the mosaic presented by an applicant’s file.”
What is UT hoping to accomplish?
Here’s how the brief explains UT’s goal:
Each year, UT strives to assemble a class that is exceptionally talented and well-prepared for UT’s rigorous academic environment. It is also a “‘major priority’” that each class be well-rounded and diverse. UT has a “broad vision of diversity,” which looks to a wide variety of individual characteristics—including “an applicant’s culture; language; family; educational, geographic, and socioeconomic background; work, volunteer, or internship experiences; leadership experiences”; special artistic or other talents, as well as race and ethnicity. UT has set—and seeks to meet—“a ‘high standard for diversity.’”
A diverse student body is “indispensable” to UT’s mission to educate and train the future leaders of Texas and America. UT has learned through experience that diversity has invaluable educational benefits. These benefits include, but are not limited to, promoting cross-racial understanding; breaking down racial, ethnic, and geographic stereotypes; and creating an environment where students do not feel like spokespersons for their race. Diversity improves academic outcomes and better prepares students to become the next generation of leaders in an increasingly diverse society.
What does Abigail Fisher argue?
Abigail Fisher, who did not fall into the top ten percent of her high school class at Sugar Land’s Austin High School, applied to enter UT’s Fall 2008 class with a 1180 out of 1600 SAT score and a cumulative 3.59 GPA. The crux of Fisher’s lawsuit? According to the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin, it is “based on a claim that any consideration of race by a university in admissions violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” Fisher’s lawyers also argue that UT’s top 10 percent rule creates enough diversity in the incoming class.
Fisher was denied entry into the school’s Fall 2008 class as well as a summer program that allows gives provisional admission to some of those who did not make it into the fall class. The brief notes that “168 African-American and Hispanic applicants in this pool who had combined AI/PAI scores identical to or higher than petitioner’s were denied admission to the summer program.” Fisher was