New federal policy supports considering race in college admissions practices
The U.S. Departments of Justice and Education today announced that they support factoring race into admissions policies at public universities.
File photo | AnnArbor.com
The announcement comes after the two departments issued a "guidance" today revising Bush-era federal policy that frowned upon affirmative action.
The decision further strengthens the University of Michigan's opportunity to revive its former policy of factoring race into admissions, a policy that until recently was prohibited by a state law that banned public universities from considering race in admissions.
That state law, called Proposal 2. was struck down by a federal ruling this summer.
Dennis Parker, director of the racial justice program at the American Civil Liberties Union, said the guidance was a big win for U-M and other schools that have been struggling with the legality of affirmative action policies.
"Under the previous guidance there was a lot of confusion," he said. "This is a clear and accurate statement of what the Supreme Court has said... which is essentially that diversity in the higher education context is a compelling governmental interest and that there are steps you can take to achieve that interest."
Parker acknowledged that state laws in Michigan have "created additional complications" for U-M.
Those complications continue to stymie the school's desire to consider race in admission policies.
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette this summer vowed to appeal the federal ruling dismissing Proposal 2.
In September, after a motion from the state of Michigan, a federal court of appeals said it would reconsider the July decision, thus putting the legality of affirmative action in Michigan in limbo.
“Entrance to our great universities must be based upon merit, and I will continue to fight for equality, fairness and rule of law,” Schuette said in July.
The new federal policy will likely weaken Schuette's appeal.
The justice and education departments say the revision has the full support of the Obama administration.
"As the Supreme Court has recognized, the benefits of participating in diverse learning environments flow to an individual, his or her classmates, and the community as a whole," the policy says. "Postsecondary institutions may develop admissions procedures designed to achieve diversity."
Michigan voters originally passed Proposal 2, a ban on considering race in admissions, in 2006, three years after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling found that U-M could work toward achieving diversity in its admissions policy, but that the school's existing policy considered race too heavily.
U-M spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said the university has no immediate plans to begin factoring race into admissions again, due to the federal court's recent decision to reconsider its July ruling. He said U-M will continue to operate under Proposal 2 guidelines until a final decision is reached by the court.
Fitzgerald said the university is still familiarizing itself with the change.
"We just received a copy of the additional guidance and are reviewing it now," he said in an e-mail. "We will carefully review the guidance to see if it offers any additional ideas that would enable the university to promote those educational benefits in a manner consistent with the state’s Proposal 2 of 2006."
The new guidance supports a university's consideration of race, as well as an institution's consideration of an applicant's socioeconomic status, residential stability and school district of origin.
It also sanctions pipeline programs that promote diversity, including partnerships between postsecondary institutions and school districts.
The new policy replaces an August 28, 2008, letter issued by the Education Department entitled “The Use of Race in Postsecondary Student Admissions.”
More than 18,000 colleges and universities were notified of the change today.
Minority enrollment at U-M slightly declined this year. Underrepresented minorities represent 10.5 percent of the freshman class, compared to 10.6 percent last year.
Approximately 5 percent of U-M’s student body is Hispanic. Another 6 percent is black and slightly more than 1 percent is Native American.
Underrepresented minorities do not include Asians, who make up approximately 16 percent of enrollment at U-M.
This story is being updated.