• by Rosana G. Rodríguez, Ph.D., and Albert Cortez, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • August 2003

Dr. Albert CortezRosana RodriguezOur colleges would either reflect our growing diversity or be reduced to elite enclaves of privileged society. It was up to the U.S. Supreme Court this spring.

The court deliberated access to higher education for minority youth in its review of Grutter vs. Bollinger and Gratz vs. Bollinger. Both cases challenged University of Michigan graduate and undergraduate admissions policies that consider race as a factor in university admissions.

The Supreme Court ruling provided much-needed clarification on what is a divisive and controversial issue. The heart of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause was at stake – providing equality of opportunity to all. In June, the court ruled that achieving diversity in higher education is a compelling state interest and that race and ethnicity can be used as one factor in making admissions related decisions.

Though focused on higher education, this ruling will have significant impact on elementary and secondary education issues as well as on the economic and social viability of communities throughout the country. This article examines the significance of the issues that were before the court, the opposing positions taken by critics and advocates, and the implications for institutions and communities.

Historical Overview of Access to Higher Education

Expanded access to higher education is a relatively new phenomenon in the United States. Previous generations believed that only a small number of elite individuals needed a college education and that most of the population could function very effectively with less than a high school education in our agrarian economy. Even with the evolution of more specialized skills in the industrial age, college was not seen as essential. Though expanded use of machinery did lead to an increase in selected skills, information acquisition and management skills were not central to worker performance.

But as demands of the workplace evolved, employers sought out increasing levels of skills and knowledge as pre-requisites for employment. In today’s information and high tech economy, few people question the benefits of a college degree.

As a result, we have experienced a notable increase in the proportion of the population pursuing and completing college degrees. However, not all segments of the population have had equal access to a college education.

White students enroll in higher education at a rate of 85 percent, while African American students enroll at only an 80 percent rate. The college enrollment rates of the country’s Latino population lags even further.

More than half of Hispanic college students are enrolled in two-year institutions, compared to only 36 percent of White students and 42 percent of African American students. The majority of White students (64 percent) and African American students (58 percent) are enrolled in four-year institutions.

Furthermore, a higher percentage of Hispanic students (51 percent) are enrolled part-time, as compared to White students (40 percent) and African American students (41 percent).

Among the three ethnic groups, Hispanic students (35 percent) are more likely to take more than six years to receive a bachelor’s degree (NCES, 1999). Despite their increasing proportion of the national population, minorities continue to be under-represented in the student bodies of most colleges and universities.

Beginning in the 1960s and through the 1990s, colleges were faced with a growing disconnection between their campus profiles and the profiles of the communities they served. They also were reassessing their roles in local communities. Many colleges modified the procedures they used to determine which students would be admitted.

The Evolution of Affirmative Action

Though seldom acknowledged, colleges and universities in the United States have historically provided preferences for selected sub-sets of the population. Family and acquaintances of large financial contributors were historically provided special consideration in the admissions process. Likewise, admissions procedures provided extra consideration for sons and daughters of alumni.

This practice of special consideration was eventually extended to athletes. Some institutions resorted to considering multiple criteria (especially, if it contributed to filling the quarterback position so badly needed to maintain the university’s winning tradition in football).

Affirmative action at colleges and universities only became a national controversy when race and ethnicity were incorporated into the “special factors” that would be considered in college and university admissions, financial aid or scholarship decisions. Those individuals and organizations feeling that such approaches left them at a disadvantage were quick to challenge such practices in the courts.

The Bakke Case

One of the first cases challenging the use of race as a factor in college admissions originated in California. In that case a graduate student, Bakke, who was rejected for admission to a California graduate school program, challenged the university’s admissions procedures, which considered race and ethnicity as one among several factors included in the decision process.

In its 1981 ruling in California vs. Bakke, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the use of race as one of a number of legitimate factors that could be used in the college admissions process. That decision struck down racial quotas but held that race could be one factor used in considering admissions.

The Hopwood Case

Bakke stood as the legal standard for 15 years until a Texas student challenged the University of Texas law school’s practice that also considered race and ethnicity as a factor in the admissions process. In that 1996 ruling, in Hopwood vs. The University of Texas Law School, a Texas Federal Court and a subsequent District Federal Appeals Court ruled that such procedures violate the U.S.

The U.S. Supreme Court chose not to reverse the ruling, in essence letting stand the lower court’s ruling. This created confusion among legal scholars and set up inconsistent legal standards in different regions of the country.

The Michigan Case

The latest challenge to affirmative action admissions policies surfaced in Michigan where two distinct cases challenged the University of Michigan procedures that considered race and ethnicity as one among several factors considered in undergraduate and graduate admissions decisions. The admissions system in Michigan’s undergraduate college awards 20 points on a 150-point scale to Latino, African American and Native American students, while the graduate school considered race and ethnicity in a more complex assessment of student admissions prospects.

The Michigan case was one of several pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, but it was the case many believed would serve as the vehicle for a final ruling on affirmative action plans in higher education. Once the high court announced its intent to review the Michigan case, the battle between advocates and opponents of affirmative action in colleges and universities was in the forefront again.

University of Michigan President, Mary Sue Coleman, was joined by more than 300 organizations filing more than 60 amicus (friends of the court) briefs in support of the university’s position on affirmative action.

Those groups included colleges and universities, faculty, more than 13,900 law students across the country, more than 63 Fortune 500 corporations, the AFL-CIO, the UAW, the National Education Association, the American Bar Association, the Association of American Medical Colleges, dozens of civil rights and religious organizations, 23 states, many members of Congress, and more than two dozen high-ranking military and civilian defense officials. (The amicus briefs submitted to the Supreme Court in each Michigan case are available from the Chronicle of Higher Education online at http://chronicle.com/extras.)

One amicus brief bore signatures from more than 100 Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives and leading members of the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and the Congressional Asian-Pacific American Caucus. It argued that a decision to strike down race-conscious college admissions could adversely affect federal programs in education and other areas that consider race for the sake of overcoming discrimination and its negative effects. A pro-Michigan brief was also signed by 12 Democratic members of the Senate, including the minority leader, Senator Thomas A. Daschle, and Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton, John Edwards, and Edward M. Kennedy.

Among the many briefs filed by civil rights organizations was one submitted on behalf of “veterans of the civil rights movement and family members of slain civil rights activists.” The brief said that the signers are seeking to “warn the court of the great threat that the attack on affirmative action poses to the enormous (if imperfect) progress made as a result of the great freedom struggles of the 1950s and 1960s” (Walsh, 2003).

Less Effective Options

Opponents of Michigan’s actions proposed that race should not be one of the factors among many that colleges could use to achieve diversity in admissions. Yet there was precedence that we have recognized the use of race in a variety of settings. To do so, is an investment in the egalitarian and more representative society in the future.

Consider the following: admissions policies like the Texas 10 percent plan and the California 4 percent plan that guarantee admission to students based on high school rank were being posited as alternatives to affirmative action programs. Yet, when we examine the results of these supposed race-neutral admissions policies, the reality is that Hispanic and African American admission percentages were smaller than before the inception of affirmative action policies.

Research conducted by the Harvard Civil Rights Project reveals that percentage plans have failed to markedly affect enrollment of minorities at flagship state universities (Horn, and Flores, 2003). Moreover, the data found that success of percent plans depends on the existence of highly segregated school settings, making them less effective in states where minority populations are more dispersed among the general population. In addition, critics have noted that these programs do not even purport to reach graduate or professional schools or private colleges, all of which would be affected by the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Until more comparably effective options are implemented and validated, policies that include race and ethnicity among the selection factors are the most effective means for supporting enrollment of diverse students at colleges and universities.

The Larger Issue: Equal Opportunity and Equal Access

Former University of Michigan President, Lee Bollinger, notes that if initial efforts to dismantle affirmative action in admissions are successful, the efforts to rid campuses of diversity “will move on to challenge other educational programs, especially the awarding of scholarships using race as one criterion” (Valverde, 2003).

A 2002 study by the College Board reports state universities are already raising tuition to compensate for a bad economy and declining state funding and that federal loan amounts to students are currently inadequate to the rising cost of college education (College Board, 2003).

The issues at stake here regarding race conscious policies are not just about college admissions. These issues will influence our future as a nation. Diversity in workforce and leadership in all areas are essential to our nation’s future economic, social and political strength. This can only come about by ensuring access to quality higher education by a diverse pool of talented people.

Commitment to ensuring diversity in higher education, as at all educational levels, exposes all students and educational systems to creative and open exchanges of ideas, opinions, cultures, languages and faiths that comprise the bedrock of America and civil society. Failure to include the nation’s increasingly diverse population among college populations bodes political and economic disaster.

Apparently the U.S. Supreme Court concurs, noting in its most recent opinion, “The court agrees with Justice Powell’s (earlier) view that student body diversity is a compelling state interest and can justify the use of race in university admissions” (Grutter vs. Bollinger, 2003).

In addition, the court noted, “The law school claim is also bolstered by numerous expert studies and reports showing that such diversity promotes learning outcomes and better prepares students in an increasingly diverse workforce for society and for the legal profession.”

It is not surprising that many college and university-based individuals are at the forefront of efforts to diversify and expand access to the nation’s minority students. Closest to the challenges, post-secondary staff and faculty have a vested interest in ensuring that the changing student pool does not convert to diminishing levels of student enrollment. But it is not only colleges and universities that will suffer from the effects of possible future declines in post-secondary education participation.
Writing on the future prospects for Texas, demographer Steve Murdoch projects that unless the state of Texas improves its educational track record, the median level of education for income for the average Texan will decline. More importantly, as the earning power diminishes, the median income for the state will decrease by approximately $3,000 per household (Murdoch, et al, 1999).

The Benefits of Diversity

Some argue that affirmative action helps unqualified students. But the reality can be seen in the success of these students as measured by their rates of graduation, success in professional and graduate schools, and success in future careers and as community leaders is well documented. Affirmative action has helped to make progress in reducing gaps in income and employment.

By providing educational opportunities to youth of color, affirmative action programs help benefit every segment of society. Schools benefit from the diversity of their student bodies, communities benefit from lower poverty rates and higher income and employment rates.

Research has shown the benefits of diversity on the overall campus success. An example is the study of the Intercultural Initiative at Loyola Marymount University, where students, staff and faculty participated in intercultural activities. Focus groups and surveys of students, staff and faculty were conducted in the first and third years of that project. Findings showed that the intercultural interventions and diversity led to many positive outcomes.

When students, staff and faculty have access to multicultural settings and activities, they feel more comfortable discussing ethnic issues with others in the campus community, are more likely to have positive interactions with people from different ethnic backgrounds, believe race relations are good on campus, and experience enhanced feelings of control over campus policies.

Tanaka states: “When there is high university commitment to interculturalism, faculty and staff indicate higher satisfaction with the environment for teaching and learning, and their intercultural understanding and skills were improved over the previous year” (2001).

Emerging research also suggests that employers benefit from a diverse workforce, with greatest productivity and related creativity reflected in work environments with extensive staff diversity.

As educators, we have a responsibility to take steps to lessen the ways in which categories define and trap groups of people. We need to open doors of access and equity for all students to participate in shaping a future that is productive for them and for our society as a whole. We have a responsibility to help students move beyond the limits that society falsely sets for them.

The shame and hypocrisy of the Michigan case had the potential of re-opening the painful chasms that have divided us as a nation, where access is only for a select and privileged few. It reminds us of the courageous leaders in civil rights who have given their lives to open doors of access to schools and universities for minority youth. And it mandates that we reaffirm our stance to ensure that all children will have access to quality education from pre-school through college and beyond.


The College Board. 2002-2003 College Costs: Keep Rising Prices in Perspective (2003). http://www.collegeboard.com.

Horn, C.L. and S.M. Flores. Percent Plans in College Admissions: A Comparative Analysis of Three States’ Experiences. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Civil Rights Project, February 2003).

Murdoch, S.H. and M.N. Hoque, M. Michael, S. White, B. Pecotte. The Texas Challenge: Population Change and the Future of Texas (College Station, Texas: Texas A&M University Press, 1999).

National Center for Educational Statistics. Condition of Education: 1999 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Reform, 1999).

Tanaka, G. “Creating an Intercultural Campus: A New Approach to Diversity,” Diversity Digest (Mill Valley, Calif.: Association of American Colleges and Universities, Winter, 2001).

Schmidt, P. “Hundreds of Groups Back University of Michigan on Affirmative Action,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (February 2003) A24-25.

Valverde, L. “Affirmative Action: Time to Advance Not Retreat,” Adelante (Tempe, Ariz.: Arizona State University, Spring 2003).

Walsh, M. “Affirmative Action Now Awaits Verdict,” Education Week (2003).

Rosana G. Rodríguez, Ph.D., is the director of the IDRA Division of Community and Public Engagement. Albert Cortez, Ph.D., is the director of the IDRA Institute for Policy and Leadership. Comments and questions may be directed to them via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2003, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the August 2003 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]