The already formidable barriers to higher education for Hispanic students are becoming greater as court decisions, spiraling costs, and cultural traditions impede college-bound students. Ironically, remedies may blossom from the high court decisions that shook up many traditional affirmative action practices.
The dismantling of minority-based admissions and financial aid policies following two 2003 Supreme Court rulings over admissions policies at the University of Michigan is only part of the picture. With those changes, plus weak college-preparatory curricula in high school, rising tuition and fees, and family pressure to stay near home and work at least part-time, Hispanic students increasingly veer from the path to advanced degrees.
The issue matters beyond the individuals affected or even the Hispanic community as a whole. Experts warn that if these educational barriers remain as the Hispanic population grows, the nation may create such a large pool of undereducated workers that it won't be able to compete effectively in the global marketplace.
However, some hurdles may fall – given time – from at least two offshoots of colleges eliminating minority-based admissions: outreach that introduces Hispanic families to higher education, and recruitment that increases the pool of Hispanic college applicants.
While these concepts have been around for years, they have been invigorated by the most recent court cases.
The 2003 court challenges were brought against University of Michigan president Lee Bollinger by Anglo students claiming unfair admissions practices. In Gratz v. Bollinger, two students who were denied admission to the College of Literature, Science and the Arts cited the school's practice of awarding bonus admissions points to racial and ethnic minorities. The Supreme Court agreed 6-3 that the point system was too mechanistic and was unconstitutional.
In the better-known of the two cases, Grutter v. Bollinger, a student said she was denied admission to the Law School while underrepresented minorities with similar grades and test scores were accepted. While the court did not prohibit the use of race or ethnicity in admissions, it noted, "The Court takes the Law School at its word that it would like nothing better than to find a race-neutral admissions formula and will terminate its use of racial preferences as soon as practicable. The Court expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today."
The decisions energized opposition to affirmative action by those philosophically opposed to racial and ethnic preferences, leading officials in higher education across the nation to revise their policies under fear of lawsuits or pressure from groups like the Center for Equal Opportunity.
"There are many programs that are being changed in response to a continuing movement to challenge minority scholarships and other diversity programs," says Brigida Benitez, a partner in the Washington, D.C. law firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP and a lead for the defense in the Michigan cases. "Often, schools do not want to risk litigation nor incur the expense, effort, and potential exposure that may result.
That fear-based response may be overblown. "They need not 'limit their legal exposure,' as Grutter allows most to use race in a specific and careful way," says Michael A. Olivas, a professor and director of the Institute of Higher Education Law & Governance at the University of Houston Law Center. "Most schools outside California and Washington States can use race – they just act as if they cannot." In those two states, as well as Florida, voters banned affirmative action in college admissions – in California through Proposition 209 in 1996,Washington through Initiative 200 in 1998, and Florida through the One Florida Initiative in 1999.
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