Already struggling to raise minority enrollment, the nation's law and business schools earlier this year braced themselves for the end of affirmative-action admissions policies. But it didn't happen. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the practice of affirmative action at the University of Michigan Law School. At the same time, the court struck down a plan giving Hispanics and other underrepresented minorities extra points toward undergraduate admission, calling instead for evaluating applications individually to determine whether race or ethnicity should be a deciding factor.
The decision has exerted a mixed impact in the states with the largest Hispanic populations. The University of Texas says it will restore racial preference at its graduate and professional schools. California maintains its voter-mandated prohibition against such admissions.
The State University of New York system has announced it will maintain "general guidelines encouraging a student population that is rich in its diversity but [without] specific quotas or hard numerical thresholds." Likewise, officials in Florida have opted to leave the state's One Florida diversity initiative relatively intact.
The court's two Michigan decisions give educators new flexibility in deciding the importance of race and ethnicity in admissions. In Gratz v. Bollinger, two Anglo undergraduate applicants to the University of Michigan filed the case after their rejection, despite grades and test scores within the qualifying range. At question was the university's numerical system. Minority students automatically received 20 points, with 100 points needed for admission. The court struck down this policy, saying that the school must meet a strict scrutiny standard that takes into account other factors than minority status. Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote that a policy that automatically gives one-fifth of the points needed for admission to every minority applicant "is not narrowly tailored to achieve educational diversity."
The other case, Grutter v. Bollinger, involved an Anglo applicant who applied to the University of Michigan Law School with high grades and test scores. She argued that the use of race as an admission factor violated her constitutional right to equal treatment. But unlike the number-based undergraduate admissions system, the law school utilized a "highly individualized, holistic review" of an applicant's qualifications. This approach passed muster with the court.
While some activists and administrators agree with Justice Antonin Scalia's opinion that the "split doubleheader" decision will fuel future controversy and lawsuits, many educators feel it gives them needed discretion to do their jobs. Currently, institutions on the 2003 Hispanic Business Best Law Schools and Best Business Schools directories use a variety of approaches to diversity that will survive or expand in the wake of the decisions. For example, Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business has increased its Hispanic applicants to 6 percent of the pool, up from 1.7 percent in 1999. School officials credit the rise in part to minority exposure to non-degree programs, such as mid-career executive education classes or participation in leadership development classes.
Many Hispanic leaders with a stake in legal and business education, however, believe the debate must move from higher education to grade school, where the inequalities start.
"Affirmative action is not the cure, it's a remedy," says Edwin Garcia, executive director of the National Society of Hispanic MBAs (NSHMBA), based in Irving, Texas. "Now more than ever, we need to look at a cure. We would not need affirmative action if all students in grades K through 12 had access to quality education."
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