Vinay Harpalani | Diversity and community upliftment
Guest Column | In college admissions, diversity within racial groups is important
March 13, 2013, 12:55 am·
This spring, in Fisher v. University of Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide if universities can still use race as a factor in their admissions decisions.
In 2003, the high court ruled in Grutter v. Bollinger that colleges could use race in admissions, to enroll a diverse student body. What counts as “diverse” is a key issue in Fisher, and it is also very germane at Penn.
In oral arguments at the Supreme Court, the University of Texas claimed it needed to consider race to attain diversity within racial groups. The university admits black and Latino students from underprivileged backgrounds because of the state’s top ten percent plan. Passed by the Texas legislature in 1998, this law guarantees admission to seniors in every Texas public high school who rank at the top of their graduating class.
Because Texas schools are racially segregated, due to residential patterns, there are many public high schools where the top students are predominantly black or Latino. However, these schools are also mainly in underprivileged districts.
Texas argued that it used race to admit more black and Latino students from affluent backgrounds. In its 2003 Grutter opinion, the Supreme Court did state that it was important for a college student body to have a variety of viewpoints and experiences within each racial group, to breakdown racial stereotypes on campus. But this argument did not go over well in Fisher.
Justice Samuel Alito called it a preference for privilege. And even supporters of affirmative action, such as Harvard Law School professor Lani Guinier, have rightly criticized elite universities for preferring minority students from affluent backgrounds over those who are underprivileged.
But that is not what the University of Texas is doing. The top ten percent plan already admits many minority students from underprivileged backgrounds. Texas merely seeks to add variety within each minority group.
There is another important reason why universities should admit black and Latino students from affluent backgrounds. These students are better prepared academically and socially for competitive universities, and they help their less privileged peers in the adjustment to college.
While the university has support services for underprivileged students, it is their classmates who are available to help them in classes, at social events and in the dormitories late at night. Diversity within racial groups not only breaks down racial stereotypes — it also creates a sense of community upliftment among minority students on campus.
The court’s Grutter opinion stated that minority students should not feel isolated on campus, and more affluent students can help less privileged classmates to feel less isolated.
Unfortunately, the court could strike down race-conscious admissions policies in Fisher. And one reason is that elite, private universities like Penn do exactly what Justice Alito maligned: preferring minority students from privileged schools over those who are less privileged.
This was not always the case. In the 1970s and 1980s, many black students at Penn came from Overbrook, University City or West Philadelphia high schools. But as Penn became more elite, it stopped admitting students from the local community, preferring those from more prestigious schools. And while more privileged students may be better prepared academically, the cost has been the sense of community upliftment that comes inherently through within-group diversity.
Penn should continue to seek all minority students, by every means the court allows. But Penn also needs more diversity within racial groups. The University cannot adopt a top ten percent rule as Texas did, but it could admit more students from West Philadelphia schools, as it once did.
Regardless of the Fisher ruling, Penn could augment its outreach in surrounding neighborhoods. It could recruit more students directly from West Philadelphia, and also provide them with academic and social support on campus — including the support of their peers. This endeavor would yield all of the noted benefits of within-group diversity. And it would create a renewed sense of connection to the local community, uplifting that as well.
By recruiting more local students, Penn could also shift the discourse on affirmative action. At a time when race-conscious admissions are under attack, new strategies for diversity are necessary. And Penn should lead the way in redefining diversity through community upliftment, starting with its own backyard.
Vinay Harpalani is a visiting assistant professor of law at the IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 2005 and is a former Daily Pennsylvanian columnist.
He specializes in race, education and constitutional law and is the author of “Diversity Within Racial Groups and the Constitutionality of Race-Conscious Admissions,” published in the University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law (November 2012) and of “Fisher’s Fishing Expedition,” published in Heightened Scrutiny (February 2013), the online supplement to the University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law.