If the justices decide more broadly that extra measures designed to boost racial and ethnic representation on campus are unconstitutional or no longer necessary, the nation's most selective universities, public and private, will lose a long-standing tool aimed at furthering their mission to prepare a diverse pool of well-trained graduates for leadership roles.
A ruling against the university or against using race in admissions threatens to upend a tradition by the court of deference toward university decision-making, says Ada Meloy, general counsel of the American Council on Education, a non-profit group that represents higher education institutions in Washington.
"It is so important to the vast majority of higher education institutions to be able to assemble the kind of student body that they think best fits their mission," Meloy says. Colleges would probably turn to race-neutral alternatives used by public universities where affirmative action has been banned, she says.
Already, public universities in Texas, California and other states have stepped up recruitment in high schools where the student body is made up predominantly of underrepresented minorities, established partnerships with schools to improve the pipeline of minority students, and established scholarships. The University of Georgia, Texas A&M University and the University of California system have dropped preferences for children of alumni, which tend to favor white students from relatively affluent families.
Colleges also might de-emphasize or eliminate an admissions requirement for standardized test scores, on which black and Hispanic students tend to score lower than white and Asian students.
In a study by the non-profit think tank Century Foundation, author Richard Kahlenberg argues universities should accept that affirmative action has run its course and replace racial preferences with class-based preferences such as parental income, parents' education levels and resources available where they live.
Studies of the University of California, where racial preferences have been banned since 1996, suggest such measures would not be sufficient. At the University of California-Los Angeles, for example, African-American students represented 6.7% of its freshman class in 1995, but only 3% in 1998 and 3.6% last year despite multiple race-neutral strategies.
"All of our efforts in terms of outreach have not made an impact," says Youlonda Copeland-Morgan, associate vice chancellor of enrollment management. "Race matters."
In Del Valle, Texas, a predominantly black and Hispanic community east of Austin, Del Valle High School college counselor Sarah Mabry says many of her brightest students have overcome great obstacles to get to the point where they would even consider applying to a prestigious school such as the University of Texas.
"Let's give everybody the chance they deserve," she says. "For God's sake, this is America."
'The process is wrong'
An end to racial preferences would come as a setback to Sweatt's descendants -- among them his daughter, who is a pathologist; another nephew, who is a doctor; and a 13-year-old grandson, who will be in court taking copious notes for his school newspaper.
"If you have to ask somebody, 'Do we need affirmative action?' then I think that answers the question," says nephew Heman Sweatt II.
Fisher, who graduated this year from Louisiana State University and is working in Austin as a financial analyst, couldn't disagree more.
"If people say anything about me, I hope they say I didn't take this sitting down," she says. "I didn't accept the process, because the process is wrong."
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