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Colleges aim for diversity without considering race

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As students around the country push for more inclusive college campuses, the Supreme Court on Wednesday once again took up the issue of affirmative action in admissions. Justices heard arguments in the case of a white former student, Abigail Fisher, who said she was denied admission to the University of Texas because of her race.

It’s widely accepted in higher education that diversity is a worthy goal, said attorney Charles Sims, who filed a “friend of the court” brief in the Fisher case on behalf of dozens of private colleges. Like many selective colleges, UT considers an applicant’s race or ethnicity among many factors in selecting students. If the Supreme Court strikes down the policy, colleges will increasingly seek other ways to increase diversity.

“It's just vital to allow universities to select the students that they think together will make the most educationally interesting class for all the students who are there,” Sims said. 

The question is, how best to do that. Since the mid 1990s, eight states have banned race-based affirmative action. In those states, schools have sought workarounds, said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a think tank with offices in Washington and New York. Universities have given preference to low-income students, offered more financial aid, and made it easier to transfer from community colleges to four-year universities.

“The good news, from my standpoint, is that public officials did not give up on diversity,” Kahlenberg said. “They found new ways to create it, and in some ways better methods, given that they will benefit economically-disadvantaged students of all races.”

Critics, though, point out that the percentages of African American, Latino and Native American students plummeted at the University of California’s Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses and at the University of Michigan, after laws took effect banning race-based affirmative action.

That’s partly because those flagships compete with private universities that can consider race, said Kahlenberg.

Systemwide, the University of California has maintained diversity, said Andrew Grossman with the Cato Institute.

“Minority admissions have actually increased, and even more importantly, minority graduation rates have gone up quite considerably,” Grossman said. 

Still others say if colleges could no longer consider race at all, looking at income alone wouldn’t cut it. 

Sigal Alon has studied class-based affirmative action as an associate professor at Tel Aviv University and author of the book “Race, Class, and Affirmative Action.” Her research suggests that if the Supreme Court struck down the consideration of race in admissions policies, the share of African Americans at elite universities would fall by as much as 50 percent.

“There is no way that class-based affirmative action could maintain the level of racial and ethnic diversity at selective institutions,” she said.

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