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Archive for November, 2012

Texas Affirmative Action Case: Race Matters

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012

Aundrea Matthews is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at Rice University with a special interest in religion and theology of the African Diaspora, as well as race and identity/culture. She can be contacted at alm2@rice.edu.

The recent conversation surrounding Fisher v. University of Texas-Austin (UT-Austin) reflects the classic controversy surrounding the legitimacy of affirmative action in college enrollment. The case, brought by Abigail Fisher after she was denied admission to UT-Austin, questions the use of race as one among a suite of characteristics and experiences that admissions staff can use to create a college cohort. At its core, the problem is how should the quarter of the incoming freshman class who were not guaranteed admission by being in the top 10 percent of their high-school class be selected? There are more qualified students than spaces in the freshman class, which means the university must develop ways of selecting these students. Those who are against affirmative action generally argue UT-Austin is practicing discrimination by its consideration of race in their admission practices. They think UT-Austin should not consider race to determine a quarter of incoming freshman classes as an attempt to make the university diverse. Groups siding with UT-Austin argue that using race as one category among many is necessary to ensure diversity on college campuses and equal educational opportunity and access for all minorities. UT contends that if a student is not granted admission to UT-Austin under the top 10 percent rule, then a holistic review process that requires other factors are taken into account, including race. University of Texas President Bill Powers said a ruling against Texas “would be a setback for the university and society.” So, I asked myself, does race matter in the college admissions process, and if it does, should it matter?

Most colleges and universities are dealing with wide disparities between white student graduation rates and minority student graduation rates. For instance, the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education reported in 2006 that “the overall nationwide college graduation rate for black students was at 43 percent compared to the 63% percentage rate for white students.” Within science, technology, engineering, and math the disparities widen. The Institute for Higher Education Policy reports that “within science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines—key areas for meeting nation workforce needs—the bachelor’s degrees completion gaps are even wider than overall: nearly 70 percent for whites compared to 42 percent African Americans, and 49 percent for Hispanics.” Studies like these suggest that the relatively low college graduation rates generally and in STEM fields particularly among minorities will have an impact on American workforce needs and global competitiveness. In a report entitled “Education Supports Racial and Ethnic Equality in STEM,” data indicates “non-Hispanic blacks and Hispanics have been consistently underrepresented in STEM jobs over the past decade.” This report argues that it is important to “enable and encourage equitable access to premium education which is critical to ensuring that America maintains a wide and diverse source of STEM professionals that help to advance U.S. innovation and global competiveness.”

The long-term implications are hard to ignore when one looks at the changing demography of Texas. In the 2011 Hechinger Report “Minorities Are Now the Majority at UT-Austin,” Steve Murdock, Rice University sociologist and director of the Hobby Center for the Study of Texas, notes that “in order to continue supplying the number of college-educated workers needed at a time when white population growth has been flat for 20 years, the nation’s universities will have to educate far more non-whites. But they may not be ready to do so.” Murdock and others suggest that this is a national issue and Murdock said in “just 13 years from now we’re going to have a school system nationally in which a majority of the children are something other than non-Hispanic whites. This is not a Texas issue. It’s not a California issue. It’s a national issue. And how well we deal with it will determine how well we remain competitive economically.”

The research cited here suggests that providing equal and excellent education to a diverse group of college students is increasingly urgent. The Fisher case, if upheld by the Supreme Court, would make this task much more difficult. Yet there are few suggestions to fix the growing educational crisis in America. Importantly, universities that consider race in their holistic review process in admissions have surpassed national graduation rates. Harvard University, traditionally one of the nation’s strongest supporters of affirmative action, has the highest black graduation rates in the United States, graduating 95 percent. This suggests that considering race has an overall salutary effect on minority access to higher education. In the context of UT-Austin and the Fisher case, State Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) said “the issue of race continues to be linked with opportunity in Texas and our country” and “We cannot just pretend that the legitimate progress made in the last several decades means equality of opportunity has been achieved and on more action needs to be taken.” If the Fisher case overturns UT-Austin policies, it will impede student diversity on the campuses of some of the most prestigious universities in America. As a result, America may become less competitive in the global market. In protecting access for qualified minorities to higher education, race certainly matters, and will continue to matter regardless of the outcome in the Fisher case.