In a 4-3 decision released today, in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the United States Supreme Court affirmed that the University’s race-conscious admissions policy meets strict judicial scrutiny and is lawful under the Equal Protection Clause. Fisher, who is white, claimed that the University’s consideration of race as one factor in a “holistic review” admissions process unlawfully disadvantaged her and other white applicants.
The University’s admissions policy guarantees automatic admission for the top 10% of high school graduates in Texas, who fill up to 75% of the incoming freshman class. Because the University believed that the top 10% admissions policy, by itself, did not produce a sufficiently diverse student body, the University created a multi-factor review process – which includes consideration of the applicant’s race – to fill the remaining 25% of the freshman class. Fisher argued that the top 10% policy, standing alone, guaranteed diversity, and further consideration of race in admissions was not necessary. The Supreme Court first reviewed the policy in 2013 and held that the lower court must determine, under a “strict scrutiny” standard, whether the University’s admissions policy is “narrowly tailored to achieve the educational benefits that flow from diversity.” In today’s opinion, the Court affirmed the 5th Circuit’s decision that the University’s policy meets this high standard.
Writing for the Court, Justice Kennedy noted that the University had articulated “concrete and precise goals” that its admissions policy was designed to achieve, including “promotion of cross-racial understanding” and preparing its student body “for an increasingly diverse workforce and society.” The Court agreed with the University that it should not be limited to the “blunt instrument” of a top 10% policy, stating that “an effective admissions policy cannot prescribe, realistically, the exclusive use of a percentage plan.” The Court held that the “holistic review” facet of the University’s admission’s policy, which considers race as one of many factors in a student’s application, was narrowly tailored to meet the University’s educational goal of diversity.
If the Court had sided with the petitioner, the case could have endangered colleges’ and universities’ future use of affirmative action policies. Instead, the Court affirmed that affirmative action policies are constitutionally permissible if they meet the Court’s standards of being “narrowly tailored.”