August 14, 2014

The costs of race preferences

By Meriem L. Hubbard Senior Attorney

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently issued the latest in a long line of decisions in the case of Abigail Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. Ruling for the University, the Court highlights the supposed benefits of considering race in the admissions process. However, the Court fails to acknowledge the other side of the equation–the costs to students admitted by virtue of racial preferences. In so doing, the Court ignored the Supreme Court’s mandate that the policy be subjected to non-deferential strict scrutiny. PLF’s amicus brief in support of rehearing before the full Fifth Circuit argues that strict scrutiny requires the Court to consider, not only the benefits that flow from the university’s race-conscious admissions plan, but the costs to those students admitted with lower academic qualifications.

The majority of students at UT Austin are admitted pursuant to a Top Ten Percent Plan that guarantees Texas residents graduating in the top ten percent of their high school class admission to any public university in the state. This process results in substantial number of “underrepresented” minorities gaining admission to the University. The remaining slots are filled by a holistic review process that allows the University to consider race when deciding which applicants to admit. The University argues that the Top Ten Percent Plan does not achieve its goal for a diverse student population, and race-conscious holistic review is necessary to reach a “critical mass” of campus diversity.

But even if there is some marginal benefit to using race to achieve this amorphous “critical mass,” the University has failed to show that these benefits overwhelm the “undeniable” costs. Studies show that racial preferences in college admissions result in an “academic mismatch” that leads to lower grades and higher drop-out rates among minority students. Students who attend schools where their academic credentials are substantially below those of their fellow students tend to perform poorly. This leads some students to shift majors as the course work proves too difficult or advanced given their educational history. Other minority students will lose interest in continuing their education and drop out.

The saddest part of this scenario is that many of these same students could achieve academic success at a less competitive college where there is a wider range of educational backgrounds and levels of achievement. The Fifth Circuit Court cannot simply ignore this cost.

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