Patrick Rochelle: Fisher v. UT sidesteps larger issues

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Patrick Rochelle

I’m a Dallas native and a sixth-generation Texan, so it should come as no surprise that I’ve taken an interest in the Supreme Court case, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, which began hearing oral arguments yesterday.

But this case won’t just affect Texas college students and residents. It will affect everyone.

First, some background on the case. In 2008, Abigail Fisher was denied admission to UT, after she failed to qualify for the University’s top 10 percent rule, which guarantees admission to Texas high school seniors in the top 10 percent of their graduating classes.

About 75 percent of the incoming class is admitted under this rule, while the remaining 25 percent is considered under UT’s holistic review policy, in which race is merely one factor among many that admissions counselors take into account. If you are thinking to yourself that this is an odd way to choose a freshman class, you’re not alone.

Of course, Fisher v. UT will force the court to decide whether or not affirmative action can be used in admissions decisions, and it will force the Supreme Court – and the country – to again confront the meaning of affirmative action in higher education.

But unfortunately, there are many other questions that the case will not resolve. For one, it won’t even touch on the fact of whether or not the top 10 percent rule is itself a discriminatory policy. And it will fail to address the perennial problem of educational segregation in the state of Texas.

By relying exclusively on a student’s high school GPA, UT sends the message to applicants that it is not looking for a well-rounded student, but rather one with the best grades. On the surface, the rule appears noble. The idea is that if you work hard in high school, and earn a spot at the top of your class, you will be rewarded.

But it doesn’t encourage students to take a challenging course load in high school. It doesn’t urge students to excel on the athletic field or pursue a hobby they’re passionate about. It merely encourages them to make the best grades possible.

Think about it. If the Office of Undergraduate Admissions announced tomorrow that from now on, GW would decide the makeup of 75 percent of the future freshman classes solely based on students’ high school GPAs, the response would likely be outrage. And it would be warranted.

The rule, perhaps unintentionally, tells students not to take calculus because it will likely hurt their GPAs, and not to challenge themselves with upper-level language courses because they could always take them in college.

It implies that the most efficient way to get into the best American colleges today is to find loopholes and ways to outsmart the system, to sneak in through the back door.

Under this system, there are a lot of smart, capable students who undoubtedly go overlooked, like the mathematician who simply isn’t great when it comes to courses like history or English, or the talented musician or engineer whose intelligence isn’t reflected on their report card.

But another factor in UT’s admissions process that the case fails to address is the racial segregation still present in the Texas public school system – even 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education.

The top 10 percent rule was a clever way the state legislature could address the reality of segregation in Texas public schools and ensure that minorities would be represented in the university system.

But that doesn’t change the fact that segregation in public schools is a persistent problem. The ruling won’t offer a solution. Instead, it will allow the state to avoid properly addressing this major issue.

No matter what the final ruling of Fisher v. UT is, and whether or not the court decides to uphold or strike down the use of race in college admissions, many unanswered questions will remain. At a pivotal time for colleges and universities across the country, Fisher v. UT will offer few solutions in a school system heavily plagued by injustice and segregation.

Patrick Rochelle, a senior majoring in English, is The Hatchet’s opinions editor.

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