The Supreme Court will begin hearing oral arguments Wednesday on Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, a case that will re-examine the issue of affirmative action in the college admissions process. Since the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, colleges and universities have had to comply with anti-discrimination laws as passed by Congress to continue receiving federal funding.
GW has demonstrated time and again a commitment to racial diversity on campus since University President Steven Knapp took the helm. In 2010, Knapp created the President’s Council on Diversity and Inclusion to focus on increasing diversity in the student body, faculty and curriculum. Each year, the Office of Admissions holds a multicultural open house for underrepresented students and minorities. In February 2011, the University hired a Vice Provost of Diversity and Inclusion who has plans to offer grants to help fund diversity efforts on campus.
Provost Steven Lerman reaffirmed the University’s commitment to race in the admissions process in his opening remarks at a panel discussion on the Fisher v. UT case, hosted by the GW Law School Sept. 24.
Like any college or university, race is merely one factor among many within GW’s admissions process. Students are not accepted or denied based exclusively on race, but instead on a combination of several factors including applicants’ high school GPAs, extracurricular activities, personal essays and standardized test scores. It is a holistic approach which examines a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses in a variety of areas.
At a time when college admissions across the country are becoming increasingly competitive, students and their families are looking for a way to make sense of a process that is rarely straightforward. Students often wonder why they were denied admission when their peers were accepted.
The college admissions process is, by nature, nuanced and subjective. And all too often, students use race as a scapegoat to justify their rejections. They sometimes assume that if a minority student receives a spot in the incoming freshman class, that student had an advantage because of his or her race. This cultural reality is proof that inequality and racial bias still exist on campuses across the country.
While race is a factor in admissions, it is not the only one.
In the past, the Office of Admissions has made diversity a priority.
However, the outcome of this case threatens to undo the University’s efforts toward racial equality and representation on campus. Although it is impossible to predict the court’s ruling, if affirmative action is struck down, the makeup of future classes at GW and on other college campuses could be radically different. If race is removed from the application process, it will be more difficult for admissions offices to admit an ethnically diverse class.
If affirmative action is struck down, GW could become more homogeneous. Efforts to promote a multicultural open house would be undermined.
But more importantly, GW would no longer be able to use race as a factor in its admissions process.
The 2003 benchmark case on affirmative action, Grutter v. Bollinger, states that there are tremendous social benefits to receiving an education in a diverse environment. And subsequent studies have affirmed this. Exposure to different races, ethnicities and cultures is a cornerstone of the college experience at GW.
There are a lot of factors within any admissions process, but race is the one factor that is most often contested. Still, there are other admissions criteria also of importance which are rarely called into question. Racial bias is still a tenuous subject in the U.S. That’s why the preservation of affirmative action at colleges and universities is vital, and why cases like the one at hand are so important to the future of higher education.
The Constitution is a living breathing document, one whose meaning must continue to be debated and allowed to evolve as the country changes socially and culturally. The issue regarding affirmative action is something that will likely be discussed for decades to come.
Perhaps one day, there will be no need for race to be considered in the admission process. But until all Americans have equal opportunity, until we are all truly on a level playing field, race must continue to be a factor in college admissions.