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Affirmative action still necessary in college admissions

Published: Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Updated: Tuesday, October 2, 2012 22:10

The Supreme Court will soon hear a case that could shake up the college admissions process.

Theoretically, affirmative action is no longer necessary. Perhaps it was 30 or 40 years ago, but society has evolved beyond discrimination, and now affirmative action only discriminates against applicants who have enough merit but not the right pigment — or so critics of the policies say.

Still, research shows that most minorities, primarily black and Hispanic students, lag behind their white peers in college enrollment, retention and graduation. Evidence also suggests that race-conscious admissions policies positively influence college graduation rates, enrollment in graduate and professional programs and job prospects.

The case Fisher v. University of Texas (UT), filed in 2008 by Abigail Fisher, a white woman who wanted to go to UT Austin but was rejected. Fisher filed suit, saying the university’s inclusion of race in its admissions is unconstitutional.

Lower courts sided with the university, citing the earlier decision of Grutter v. Bollinger. The court’s ruling in the Grutter case established that a “narrowly tailored use” of race in admissions supports a “compelling interest” in diversity.

Last week, the Obama administration filed an amicus brief in support of UT, saying the use of race in the admissions process furthers a “vital interest” of the government. The brief argues that having a “well-qualified and diverse pool of university and service-academy graduates of all backgrounds” is critical to the future labor force.

But Fisher’s lawsuit against the school and debate in other states makes it clear that cases have done little to clear up confusion.

States have used ballot initiatives to remove race-based affirmative action in college admissions, such as in California and Arizona.

Arizona’s Proposition 107, which passed in 2010, banned the consideration of race, ethnicity or gender by units of state government, including public universities.

But critics fail to realize two things. First, people who suspect they are victims of reverse discrimination probably outnumber people who are actually victims. Colleges, especially schools with higher standards, often reject applicants of all races for reasons that don’t have anything to do with race.

Second, affirmative action isn’t about reversing discrimination or its history. Minority students don’t get a free pass as reparations for discrimination leveled against their ancestors.

Rather, a university must reflect the multicultural society that it will send its students into. Affirmative action is about making sure that a diversity of voices — shaped by experience and identity — contributes to the learning environment.

There’s no denying that affirmative action can be risky, as demonstrated by Princeton University, which is under federal investigation for allegedly requiring Asian-Americans to have stronger test scores and grades than other applicants. It must be exercised with caution. But diversity remains a compelling interest, no matter what year it is.

Kristina Bui is a student at the University of Arizona.

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