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To begin, let's look at where race-based admissions currently stand in the United States. According to an American Council on Education survey cited in Money Magazine, almost 30% of 4-year institutions factor race into their admissions decisions, a percentage that increases to 60% when looking specifically at the most selective schools.
In several previous rulings, the Supreme Court has already instated restrictions with regard to such admissions, arguing that at this point race-based admissions policies can only be defended in terms of their educational benefits—what students stand to gain from diverse perspectives in the classroom—and not with arguments that suggest that colleges should be as racially diverse as the world outside them or that colleges must make amends for previously discriminatory policies. Furthermore, in its 2013 Grutter v. Bollinger decision, the Supreme Court claimed that affirmative action has a time limit of around 25 years, after which point colleges should no longer need such programs.
Many commentators expect the Court's decision, which should be announced by June, to go against affirmative action. The primary reasons for believing the Court will side with Fisher are: 1. the string of limitations to race-based admissions policies that the Court has enacted over the last few decades; 2. the fact that the Court even decided to rehear the case in the first place (which suggests the Justices were unhappy with the lower court's decision in UT's favor); 3. the conservative-leaning politics of the current group of Justices. But if the Supreme Court does rule against UT, the decision could still take multiple forms. For instance, will the Justices limit their verdict to the UT system in particular, or will they make a wider-ranging decision? Will they simply put further restrictions in place, or will they do away with affirmative action entirely? We cannot yet know.
Even if the Court does take the broadest possible approach and strikes down affirmative action policies nationwide, many colleges would likely respond to such a policy shift by incorporating other aspects of diversity into their admissions process. Other potential differences that may factor into future admissions policies include: 1. differences in location; 2. differences of adversity; 3. differences in class and socioeconomic status. The last of these factors has already begun to be utilized by schools in states where affirmative action is banned and is considered a feasible means of maintaining higher levels of diversity in the absence of explicitly race-based admissions policies.
No matter what the Court decides to do with Fisher, its decision will clearly reverberate in colleges across the country and will have an impact on admissions strategies for students nationwide.
Furthermore, similar cases working their way up to the Supreme Court, including suits against UNC and Harvard (the latter of which is focused on whether Asian American students are held to higher standards than their peers of other races when it comes to admission at elite schools), will also be affected by the Fisher decision.
For now, we can only wait and see whether or not the Court will side with UT-Austin, agree with Fisher's lawyers that race should only be used in college admissions as a "last resort—not the rule," or determine that race should not be a factor at all in admissions decisions.
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