WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the constitutionality of the University of Texas' admissions process, saying it could continue using race as one of many factors in determining whom it admits.
In a 4-3 ruling, the court said race-conscious policies could be used "as a means of obtaining the educational benefits that flow from student body diversity."
But the school has an "obligation to engage in constant deliberation and continued reflection regarding its admissions policies," it said. Race should play "no greater role than is necessary to meet the compelling state interest" of having a diverse campus.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the 20-page opinion. He was joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.
Chief Justice John Roberts dissented, as did Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas. In a dissent, Alito called the majority's determination "remarkable and remarkably wrong," adding, "UT has never provided any coherent explanation for its asserted need to discriminate on the basis of race."
Justice Antonin Scalia, who was on hand for the oral arguments in December, died before the opinion was completed. Justice Elena Kagan didn't take part in the decision; she worked on the case while serving as solicitor general.
The nation's high court has struck down racial quotas, declaring them to be unconstitutional. But they allow race to play a limited role in college admissions.
In a 2003 case, Grutter v. Bollinger, the court voted 5-4 to uphold the University of Michigan's affirmative-action plan, which also included race as one of many factors. But the court raised the possibility that the program might eventually be unnecessary -- and therefore unconstitutional.
Thirteen years later, the court determined that such programs are still justifiable, saying it is helpful to welcome "underrepresented perspectives."
But it said the University of Texas should consider more than race as it reviews its admissions program and works to select a well-rounded student body.
Eight states do not allow their public universities to consider race as a factor in the admissions process. And officials from some of Arkansas' largest schools said race isn't a factor when they select students.
But many of the nation's most exclusive universities, including the University of Texas, consider skin color as they narrow the field of applicants.
At the Austin school, 75 percent of all admissions are race-blind. Under the Texas Ten Percent Plan, three-quarters of the slots are reserved for students who graduate at the top of their graduating class.
Twenty-five percent of the admissions look at other factors besides class rank: test scores, personal essays, race and socioeconomic status, extracurricular activities, among others. Students who come from a single-parent household or low-achieving schools get a slight advantage.
Race isn't the deciding factor in the admissions process, the court ruled. Instead race is "a factor of a factor of a factor," Kennedy wrote.
The school, the court said, had given "reasoned, principled explanations" for its admissions standards.
In his dissent, Alito noted that students were allowed to "classify themselves" as a member of a favored group and said the University of Texas' admissions system was "an invitation for applicants to game the system."
The justice said the university's "crude classification system is ill-suited for the more integrated country that we are rapidly becoming."
Thursday's case was brought by Abigail Fisher, a white woman who applied for admission to the Class of 2008. She wasn't in the top 10 percent of her class and she was denied admission. She enrolled instead at Louisiana State University.
The court had already considered the case once, sending it back to the lower court.
Josh Silverstein, a law professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's W.H. Bowen School of Law, said there had been speculation that the Supreme Court would reverse course and put an end to race-conscious admissions practices.
"The court punted the last time the case was before it. No one was sure exactly what was going to happen," he said.
Instead, "the court basically reaffirmed its long-standing position that educational diversity is a compelling state interest," he said.
Mark Killenbeck, a professor at the University of Arkansas School of Law, said the case won't put an end to affirmative-action challenges.
"The people who are in favor of affirmative action and diversity are going to trumpet this as a big victory for their side of the equation ... [but] the opinion doesn't actually do that in any meaningful way," he said.
Kennedy called the case "sui generis" -- one of a kind -- and his ruling focused on one applicant and one school at one point in time, Killenbeck noted.
"At the end of his opinion, he has these passages saying, 'Texas has an obligation to constantly reassess what it's doing, to constantly evaluate what they're doing and whether it is effective and appropriate and necessary,'" Killenbeck said. "And I think that is a shot across the bows of most colleges and universities. ... [They're] under a continuing obligation not simply to do it properly, but to show it's actually necessary and to show that it's actually working and producing the outcomes that you associate with it."
The professor said the ruling wouldn't affect "the vast majority" of the nation's colleges, including the University of Arkansas.
"Our enrollment has been growing and it's been growing without the use of affirmative action," he said.
Officials at other Arkansas schools Thursday said they haven't adopted the Texas approach.
In Conway, "The University of Central Arkansas does not use race as a determining factor in admissions," said spokesman Fredricka Sharkey. "The university will review the ... decision to assess whether we should modify our current admissions standards."
In Jonesboro, the policy is the same.
"Arkansas State University admits academically qualified students; race is not a factor in the admission process," a school spokesman said.
At the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, qualified undergraduate applicants aren't turned away.
"At UALR, race plays no role in admissions decisions. ... It's not considered at all," said Katie Young, the school's director of admissions.
A Section on 06/24/2016
Print Headline: School's affirmative-action plan upheld