Supreme Court ruling revives importance of campus diversity

The Supreme Court’s decision Thursday upholding the University of Texas’ affirmative action program has little direct impact on Georgia’s public colleges, legal and admissions experts said. Indirectly, the case is likely to further discussions about what higher education institutions should be doing to increase diversity on their campuses.

“Today’s (Fisher vs. University of Texas at Austin) opinion in some ways just upholds the status quo,” said Fred Smith, a visiting professor at Emory University’s law school. “Whether public colleges in Georgia want to look at more ways to increase diversity is not so much a constitutional question, so much as a policy question.”

The state’s University System is reviewing the Supreme Court’s decision and through a spokesman declined to comment further.

Georgia’s public colleges and universities have not used race as a factor in admissions since a federal appeals court in 2001 ruled that the University of Georgia’s admission program considering race was unconstitutional.

In both the Texas and Georgia cases, the legal challenge was brought by white students who said they were not admitted to their schools’ freshman class because of their race. Atlanta attorney Lee Parks, who represented the three Georgia students in the 2001 case, called the Supreme Court’s decision in the Fisher case “disappointing.”

“There’s got to be a better way to do it,” he said Thursday. If colleges define diversity as more than just race, then the diversity will come in the variety of students that are accepted on other qualifications, he said.

Since the 2001 ruling, Georgia’s campuses have found other ways to promote campus diversity. UGA guarantees admission to the top two graduates from every accredited Georgia high school and provides targeted scholarships to attract minorities. In fall 2002, 13 percent of UGA’s freshmen were nonwhites. More than a decade later, in fall 2015, almost 30 percent of first-year students identified as nonwhite, according to its profile of first-year students.

Georgia State University has become one of the most diverse institutions in the nation (43 percent African American, 29 percent white, among freshmen ) not by using race as part of its admissions decisions but by intentionally providing the types of experiences and supports that allow students from all backgrounds to thrive, said Tim Renick, Georgia State’s vice provost. That support, more than admissions policies, drives student decisions about where to attend, Renick said.

Lost in the discussion is the difficulty in getting certain students to college in the first place, said Dana Strait, an enrollment expert with the Education Advisory Board. The Fisher decision should rekindle conversations around increasing the number of minority, low-income and first-generation students who attend college, and how colleges can partner with high schools in getting them there, she said.

By the time a college gets to an application to even possibly consider race, “you’ve probably already lost the battle” in recruiting those (students), she said. “Those students are many times not even applying for college.”

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