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U.S. Opinions: Baltimore

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Race and college admission

From an editorial in The Baltimore Sun on Wednesday:

Anybody who has ever encountered the college admissions process knows that there’s no such thing as an even playing field. Most schools will admit that upfront. “Like all colleges,” Harvard College notes on its own admissions web site, “we seek to admit the most interesting, able, and diverse class possible.”

In other words, schools often try to balance out an incoming class with students who not only have good grades or high test scores but have had unusual life experiences as well as those they regard as “well rounded.” There is no one set of criteria for the preferred applicant at Harvard or most anywhere else. It doesn’t necessarily involve an accomplishment, skill or talent but little more than chance in some cases – schools often look to balance gender, geography and disability, too.

Given that reality, the desire of any state to ban affirmative action in the college admissions process seems suspicious. If schools consider all sorts of extenuating circumstances in the name of diversity, why not factor in a person’s race?

That point of view essentially won over the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled last November in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action that Michigan’s prohibition on public universities and colleges from using race as a factor in setting admissions policies violated the Equal Protection Clause. Michigan voters approved that ban as “Proposal 2,” an amendment to the state constitution in 2006, but as the appeals court pointed out, it essentially left minorities with an unusually high hurdle to now challenge college admissions policies.

Unfortunately, that argument didn’t seem to win over conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court when the Schuette case was heard this week. Make no mistake, this isn’t about racial quotas. They have not been allowed since the 1978 Supreme Court decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. But in that same decision, the high court ruled that using race as a criterion was allowed.

Should states like Michigan and a handful of others be able to adopt laws that strip minorities of this kind of educational opportunity? That seems ill-advised. Already, Michigan has experienced a drop in minority college enrollment. That ought to set off bells and whistles for the justices. Better to leave matters of admissions where they belong – in the hands of school administrators.

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