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June 29, 2015

The Supreme Court will once again take up affirmative action in college admissions. The Court announced Monday it would review whether considering race and ethnicity while building a college class is constitutional.

Right now, colleges and universities are allowed to take race into account when sifting though piles and piles of applications.

"It's always been a highly contentious issue," says Tomiko Brown-Nagin, who teaches law and history at Harvard. Brown-Nagin says the Court is taking up affirmative action at a time when the country is debating questions of access for students of color.

"It's incredibly competitive to be admitted to selective institutions of higher education," she says. "On the one hand you have the continuing controversy over the use of race in admission. On the other hand you have a lot of anxiety in the public about whether students will be admitted to college."

Listen to our extended interview with Harvard's Tomiko Brown-Nagin:

Two years ago, in its Fisher v. University of Texas ruling, the Supreme Court punted. It didn't reject affirmative action, but it didn't endorse it either. Instead, the Court said race-based admissions should be considered constitutional only if racial preferences are the only way to achieve diversity on campus.

The decision to rehear Fisher has confounded both civil rights and higher education leaders.

"American colleges and universities, individually and collectively, seek to create the most appropriate academic environments that will enable their students to be fully prepared to lead and thrive in an increasingly complex and global society,” Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, wrote in a statement. “A diverse student body is critical to that pursuit.” 

“As they rehear the Fisher case, we remain confident that the justices will continue to recognize the importance of diversity and show appropriate deference to the judgments made by the University of Texas, which inform its admissions policies and practices," Corbett Broad added.

The Court’s decision also surprised Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Henderson called it baffling, but said he's confident the Court will favor Texas.

“Our nation’s colleges and universities play a critical role in preparing our children for a diverse, increasingly competitive global workforce," Henderson said. "They need to have every tool at their disposal to create the kind of learning environment that will give our kids the best shot of success in a competitive 21st century economy.”

The Supreme Court is expected to reconsider the affirmative case sometime next session.

"The mere fact that the Court decided to rehear the case is not good news for proponents of affirmative action," says Harvard's Tomiko Brown-Nagin. "I would have to say things do not look good."

university of texas, increasing access and success, affirmative action, admissions

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