On June 23, 2016, the United States Supreme Court issued a landmark decision upholding the race-conscious admissions program at the University of Texas. Under UT's plan, approximately 25% of an incoming class is filled through a combination of applicants' "Academic Index" (SAT scores, high school grades) and their "Personal Achievement Index." The Personal Achievement Index consists of a holistic review of numerous factors, including an applicant's race. A student who was denied admission filed a lawsuit to challenge the program, claiming that UT's consideration of race as a factor in admissions denied her rights under the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause.
The Supreme Court--in a 4-3 vote (Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer and Sotomayor were in the majority, Justices Thomas, Alito and Chief Justice Roberts dissented, and Justice Kagan did not participate)--decided that UT's consideration of race as part of its admissions process did not violate the Constitution. Applying a "strict scrutiny" standard, the Court found that UT had articulated precise and concrete goals for its race-conscious admissions program (including combating stereotypes, promoting racial understanding and preparing students for a diverse workforce). The Court further found that UT had shown that the race-conscious program was narrowly-tailored to address these goals (the Court noted that consideration of race had only a minor impact on the number of minority students admitted to UT) and that race-neutral programs would not achieve UT's diversity goals. However, the Supreme Court also sounded a cautionary note: it stressed that UT must continually evaluate its race-conscious admissions program to ensure that race plays no greater role than necessary to accomplish its diversity goals.
Justice Alito filed a lengthy dissent, arguing that the Court majority did not, in fact, apply a "strict scrutiny" standard of review but rather deferred in large part to UT's asserted justifications for its admissions program without requiring UT to meet its burden to show that a race-conscious program was necessary and that the particular race-conscious program it put in place was narrowly-tailored to meet that necessity.
Client Tip: While race-conscious admissions programs in public college admissions continue to be permissible, the Court's warning that institutions have a "continuing obligation" to ensure that such programs is significant. Institutions should continue, both now and at regular intervals in the future, review any race-conscious admissions program to ensure that it complies with the standards the Supreme Court reiterated in Fisher.