Supreme Court Decisions Impact Univ. Admissions

University Testing

The U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the Michigan “reverse discrimination” cases represent a major victory for advocates of “holistic” admissions as well as for supporters of affirmative action and diversity. The rulings will encourage more institutions of higher learning to promote both equity and excellence by reducing the role of test scores and other quantitative factors and focusing more on richer sources of data.


Holistic admissions practices involve a comprehensive review of each applicant’s full portfolio, including such factors as high school academic performance, extracurricular activities, community service, and family background. This is the type of approach that a 6-3 majority of Justices found met Constitutional requirements in the Michigan Law School Grutter case.


A FairTest Amicus Curiae brief submitted to the Supreme Court argued that heavy reliance on exams such as the LSAT and SAT, the apparent goal of the anti-affirmative action plaintiffs, contributes to racially discriminatory admissions practices but does not improve academic quality. The brief concluded, “Test scores do not equal merit.” (See Examiner, Winter-Spring 2003.)


The impacts of the decision will be felt first in jurisdictions where lower federal courts had prohibited affirmative action, but effects are likely throughout undergraduate and graduate school admissions. The rulings have emboldened advocates to press for the repeal of state laws and other actions that restrict consideration of race. But some affirmative action opponents have already announced plans for state ballot questions to extend those prohibitions to other states. Additional litigation challenging specific admissions procedures is also possible.


The University of Michigan is likely to revise its undergraduate admissions procedures to coincide with the more individualized process followed by its law school, which the Supreme Court endorsed. That means eliminating a mathematical formula in which test scores and grades played the most prominent roles.


Other state institutions that have used quantitative applicant ranking systems similar to Michigan’s will also have to make changes. News reports indicate this list includes Ohio State University, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and the University of Illinois at Chicago, among others.


Texas legislators are considering reworking many aspects of their state’s admissions laws in the wake of the Supreme Court decision, which overrides the Hopwood case ban on affirmative action. In the wake of Hopwood, FairTest had supported passage of the “Top 10%” law to help restore diversity, which it did to a significant extent at the undergraduate level (see Examiner, Winter 2000-2001, Fall 1999). But that provision did not cover Texas’ graduate and professional schools, where African American and Latino enrollment dropped markedly. These policies can now be reviewed in the context of a broader range of legally available admissions practices. The same is true for public universities in Mississippi and Louisiana, where flexibility was limited because those states were covered by the same U.S. Court of Appeals that ruled in Hopwood.


Leaders of the University of Georgia system are also considering updating admissions practices to open campus gates to more underserved minority group members. In 2001, a Federal District Court judge had struck down a points-based system similar to that used for Michigan undergraduates. Since that time the race of applicants has not been considered, with a resulting decline in diversity.


Though their state is not directly covered by the Supreme Court ruling, some California legislators are trying to line up the support necessary to overturn Proposition 209, the voter-approved law that bans affirmative action in all public activities including university admissions. Deans at the University of Washington have also called for repeal of their state’s restrictions, which were derived from California’s.


In Florida, Governor Jeb Bush has said there will be no changes in his “One Florida” Executive Order, which bars affirmative action but grants undergraduate admission to the state university system to all students graduating in the top 20 percent of their high school classes. Jesse Jackson and other civil rights leaders are planning a major demonstration in Tallahassee next March, just before the Florida presidential primary election, to call for restoration of affirmative action.


Opponents Pursue New Restrictions
Affirmative action opponents, who often act as if they believe that test scores and grades should be the only measures of “merit,” have said they will continue fighting to block many of the proposed admissions reforms. Ward Connerly, author of California’s Proposition 209, and his allies have promised to run ballot question campaigns to ban any form of affirmative action in Michigan, Colorado, and possibly elsewhere. Legal challenges to the details of admissions practices in other states may still come from the conservative litigation firms that brought the Michigan cases.


The battle for fair and open admissions practices is far from over.


• The Supreme Court Michigan decisions are available at
• FairTest’s Amicus brief is posted at