Washington Watch: Race, diversity and colleges

A tour group walks through the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. (Photo: AP/file)

Last week, the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) joined with the American Council on Education (ACE) and 36 other higher education groups in an amicus brief opposing the highly publicized challenge to Harvard University’s admissions practices.

The case, Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. Harvard, is slated to begin in mid-October in federal district court in Boston. There is a very small likelihood that pre-trial motions could dispose of the issues in the case and preclude the need for a trial. Both sides have filed a motion for summary judgment, and the higher education associations’ brief opposes the plaintiff’s motion and supports Harvard’s.

The case is drawing intense scrutiny given the potential seating of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, replacing Associate Justice Kennedy. Kennedy was often a swing vote on the court on issues of the use of race in college admissions decisions, and the Harvard case seems to have potential for review by the high court.

Stoking attention is the Trump administration’s filing a “statement of interest” supporting the challenge to Harvard’s policies.

Circumstances of the case

In November 2014, Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), an organization created by anti-race conscious admissions activist Edward Blum sued Harvard, alleging that it discriminates against Asian-Americans. The suit seeks to prevent Harvard and other colleges and universities from using race as part of their holistic review of applicants.

SFFA alleges Harvard’s admissions process holds Asian-American applicants to a higher standard than other potential students by engaging in racial balancing, and that it overlooks race-neutral alternatives when choosing which students to admit.

In response, Harvard emphasizes that it reviews applicants with the goal of developing a diverse student body that prepares students to succeed in an environment where interacting with people with different experiences and backgrounds is increasingly essential—a process consistent with Supreme Court rulings in previous cases.

Blum previously recruited Abigail Fisher to sue the University of Texas at Austin and supported her challenge to its admissions policies, culminating in two trips to the Supreme Court (Fisher I and Fisher II).  When the Supreme Court ruled in Fisher II in 2016, it represented the fourth time in four decades that the high court reaffirmed that the educational benefit of a diverse student body is a compelling government interest that can justify the narrowly tailored consideration of race.

What the associations say

The associations’ amicus brief does not delve into the legal nuances of the Harvard case. Instead, it speaks to the benefits that accrue to diversity on college campuses, and the positive role of a “holistic, individualized” review of applicants.

The brief argues that a diverse student body is essential to educational objectives of colleges and universities, and that each institution should be able to determine within broad limits the diversity that will advance its mission. The associations also point out that holistic reviews remain a cornerstone for race-conscious admissions precisely because they consider each applicant individually rather than limiting them to their race.

Community college considerations

Community colleges obviously do not confront the same issues relating to racial diversity in admissions that face the country’s most highly selective colleges. Furthermore, by virtue of being local institutions, their student bodies inevitably reflect, at least to some extent, their surrounding communities.

However, the federal government’s policies concerning college admissions can have implications for other federal policies concerning the efforts that community colleges undertake to ensure that traditionally underrepresented populations enroll in and thrive on community college campuses. In addition, AACC’s staunch, longstanding support for diversity compelled it to join in on the ACE brief.

It is certain that the Harvard case will continue to garner national attention, and AACC will likely be working with other higher education groups to ensure that colleges can continue to make diversity a cornerstone of their activity.

About the Author

David Baime
is senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges.