In February, the court agreed to hear Fisher v. University of Texas, a challenge to the university’s admissions policy, fueling speculation that it could revisit the standards it set nine years ago. The Texas system admits the top students at every high school in the state, but also admits additional students with a system that takes race into account.
The court has many options, including leaving things as they stand, finding that universities are interpreting the Michigan case too loosely, altering it, or overturning it completely. And it remains unclear how any ruling would affect private colleges, which rely heavily on federal financing.
Perhaps the best glimpse of a future without the current version of affirmative action comes from the handful of states that have already outlawed the use of race in public college admissions.
After California voters approved such a law, black and Hispanic freshman enrollment at the University of California system dropped by about one-quarter in 1998, the first year the ban was in effect. At the system’s most competitive campuses, in Berkeley and Los Angeles, enrollment for those groups fell by almost half.
In the years since, the system has tried several approaches to increase diversity without directly taking race into account, and the numbers eventually rose.
A central part of California’s effort has been to compare applicants with other students in their communities, rather than with students statewide, much as Texas does. At each high school, the top 9 percent of students are guaranteed admission to the University of California — though not necessarily to the campuses of their choice — as long as they meet some other criteria.
Officials acknowledge that the aim is race-conscious but that the mechanism is race-neutral.
Florida uses a percentage-based system as well. There, as in California and Texas, the benefits go mostly to Hispanic students because of the large number of high schools that are predominantly Hispanic. Black students are spread among high schools with large numbers of other students.