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.
Many are wondering if the banning of affirmative action in state schools has something to do with it.
On the heels of their affirmative action decision in June, the Supreme Court of the United States will be hearing arguments on Tuesday, October 15, in another case. Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action involves the University of Michigan, which was at the center of another landmark affirmative action case in 2003. This latest case will decide if states can ultimately prevent educational institutions from trying to increase diversity by considering race when all other policies have failed.
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 affirmative action was banned. Minority enrollment plummeted immediately.
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.
Does this mean that affirmative action policies are needed?
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.
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.
Affirmative action policies were initiated in the 1960s to address the real disparities and unfairness in employment, and later education, after decades of racial inequality and injustice. While universities may have begun their policies to right these wrongs, they quickly learned that it wasn’t just minority students who were receiving a better education. White students were also getting a new perspective on subjects simply by interacting with people of different backgrounds, people that weren’t like them.
As we await SCOTUS’ decision in the latest Michigan case, the person that started it all, Jennifer Gratz, is planning her campaign for the board of regents at the University of Michigan.
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