The University of Michigan has long held a belief that diversity in the student population is a key component to advanced learning and prides itself on its historical advances in increasing the number of women and minorities in its student population. History has shown, however, that maintaining diversity can be a challenge, even with the best intentions. In spite of various initiatives, grants and the establishment of a Diversity Council, minority enrollment has fallen by more than 30 percent in its undergraduate and graduate programs.
The decline is directly linked to banning of affirmative action in state schools.
In Grutter v. Bollinger, et. al., the Supreme Court ruled that University of Michigan’s law school did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution by considering race in admissions. At the same time, in the companion case, Gratz v. Bollinger, the court found the school’s use of race in undergraduate admissions patently unconstitutional. The difference was that in the case of the law school, race was just one factor in a more holistic approach in considering highly qualified applicants to increase diversity in law school. The Court agreed that the university’s approach was in good faith and supported by studies that showed diversity promotes better learning outcomes and prepares students for the workplace and society.
In contrast, the undergraduate admissions program, which still aimed for increased diversity, used an approach described as a quota system by using race as a deciding factor for admissions by guaranteeing admissions to qualified undergraduates who were a member of three specific racial groups: African-American, Hispanic and Native American. The university altered its undergraduate admissions policy to be in line with the one used for law school admissions.
In response to the SCOTUS decision, the person at the heart of the Gratz case, Jennifer Gratz, started a campaign for an amendment to Michigan’s constitution that would ban race based admissions in all public universities. In 2006, Proposal 2 was passed by 58 percent of Michigan voters and banned affirmative action in public entities.
Minority enrollment in state schools plummeted immediately.
Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action challenged the passage of Proposal 2. An appeals court ruled that the amendment violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and was, therefore, unconstitutional. On Tuesday, April 22, 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that at it was not.
The ruling did not ban affirmative action policies. As Justice Kennedy wrote in the majority’s opinion, the Court previously ruled in Fisher v University of Texas that the consideration of race was permissible, consistent with its Grutter ruling, as long as it was part of a holistic approach to admissions. Instead, the Court was asked in Schuette if “whether, and in what manner, voters in the States may choose to prohibit the consideration of racial preferences in governmental decisions, in particular with respect to school admissions.”
SCOTUS says that the passage of Proposal 2 was a process of self-government and that the majority of voters did not change the political process to cause injury to a particular group. The case, the majority wrote, was about the debate regarding racial preferences in admissions and as part of that discussion, the people of Michigan gave instruction to “governmental entities not to embark upon the course of race-defined and race-based preferences was adopted…because the voters deemed a preference system to be unwise, on account of what voters may deem its latent potential to become itself a source of the very resentments and hostilities based on race that this Nation seeks to put behind it.”
In other words, the majority of voters decided this is the best way to resolve the problem. However, the evidence shows that the passage of Proposal 2 only made the problem worse.
In 2006, 6.4 percent of the undergraduate freshman class were black, 5.3 percent were Hispanic. The numbers steadily decreased after the passage of Proposal 2. In 2012, the enrollment was 4.6 percent and 3.9 percent respectively. The law school, whose affirmative action program was deemed constitutional, also saw a decrease in black enrollment from 6.8 percent in 2006 to an average of about 3.9 percent since the passage of Proposal 2.
Michigan is one of ten states that ban affirmative action at state schools. While many universities have tried other approaches, such as using economic diversity or automatically admitting a percentage of high achieving students, minority enrollment still lags significantly in public universities. Though studies do show students that come from poorer school districts have an academic achievement gap, the lower enrollment can’t be explained by lack of qualified applicants as that gap has narrowed. As the head of admissions at the University of Michigan’s law school indicates, “These are all people who anyone would want to admit.”
In other words, there is competition for good candidates, often from private universities.
Private colleges and universities are somewhat immune to many of the legal challenges of affirmative action policies since they don’t take public funds. Still, minorities are significantly underrepresented in private institutions, and enrollment has declined dramatically since the 1990s. White students were five times more likely to apply to a private university than a black or Hispanic student and were two to three times more likely to gain admission. The study also found that almost 60 percent of the enrolled students came from families representing the top quarter of income distribution, regardless of race.
The study went on to say that alternative programs such as Texas’ Top Ten Percent would not increase minority admissions in those universities. They concluded that the only explanation for the disparity is changes in the application and admissions policies of these universities.
Like affirmative action.
Even though researchers, educators and even the Supreme Court agree that diversity in education is crucial, many universities are shying away from any policy that even hints at giving preference to a particular group. The court challenges and overall bad publicity affirmative action has received in recent decades have caused them to try to be more equitable in their admissions. Legislative actions and voter initiatives, such as Proposal 2 in Michigan, show that public opinion is against affirmative action policies, believing that meritocracy will always work.
Except that it doesn’t.
University of Miami professor Frank L. Sampson conducted a study on merit based admissions, using the University of California as a sample school. California banned affirmative action at all public universities through a voter initiative in 1996 (and subsequently saw a decline in minority enrollment). In the study, the participants were asked to evaluate the importance of academic achievement when assessing applicants. Participants indicated that high value should be placed on standardized test scores and class ranking. When told that Asian-Americans were admitted at a higher rate when using this standard, white participants responded that less weight should be placed on academic performance.
In other words, white participants supported academic meritocracy as long as it benefited people like them.
The 6-2 decision (Justice Kagan recused herself, having been the Solicitor General at the time the Department of Justice filed a friend of the court brief in the case) allows the majority of the electorate to control the “debate” on such a sensitive issue. In a concurring opinion, Justice Breyer pointed out that this case was essentially about whether the voters had the right to remove the decision-making process of race-sensitive admissions from an “unelected administrative body to a politically responsive one.”
Justice Sotomayor wrote in the dissent that the plurality misses the point entirely.
“This case is not, as the plurality imagines, about “who may resolve” the debate over the use of race in higher education admissions,” Justice Sotomayor writes. “This case is about how the debate over the use of race-sensitive admissions policies may be resolved —that is, it must be resolved in constitutionally permissible ways. Today, by permitting a majority of the voters in Michigan to do what our Constitution forbids, the Court ends the debate over race-sensitive admissions policies in Michigan in a manner that contravenes constitutional protections long recognized in our precedents.”