The Education Project - The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law | Fisher v. Texas

Fisher v. Texas

A federal district court recently upheld the University of Texas at Austin's (UT) use of race in admission decisions. Fisher v. Texas is the first federal court challenge to the 2003 Supreme Court decision in Grutter v. Bollinger.  In accordance with Grutter, the court found that the university had a "compelling interest in attaining a diverse student body sufficient to justify its consideration of race as a part of its admissions process."

The Fisher decision is a significant shift in the way courts in Texas previously viewed the use of race in university admissions. In the 1996 Hopwood v. Texas case, the Fifth Circuit struck down as unconstitutional the race-based criteria university officials used in admissions decision making. In particular, the court in Hopwood held that attaining a diverse student body does not constitute a compelling governmental interest.  As a result, Texas undergraduate and graduate programs stopped using race as a factor in the admissions process and minority enrollment at the University of Texas declined.  

In response to Hopwood, the Texas State Legislature passed the "Top Ten Percent Law" which guarantees admission to a UT school to the top 10 percent of high school graduates.  In an attempt to further bolster minority enrollment, UT adopted various race-neutral plans including scholarship programs and increased outreach efforts to high schools in underrepresented areas. UT also began to use a more holistic approach to the admissions process that includes taking into account Personal Achievement Index (PAI) factors, such as an applicant's special honors and awards, extra-curricular activities, community service, and socio-economic status.  These efforts alone, however, failed to stave off the declining rate of minority enrollment at UT.

The Fisher case arose after UT began considering race as part of an applicant's PAI, which it was constitutionally permitted to do after the Grutter decision.  The plaintiffs in Fisher argued that UT cannot consider race in the admissions process if they can achieve racial diversity through the use of race-neutral alternatives, such as the Top Ten Percent Law. However, the court cited a 2002 University study which found that that year 79 percent of the University's 5,631 classes  had zero or one African-American students and 30 percent had zero or one Hispanic students.  This large-scale absence of African-American and Hispanic students from thousands of classes illustrated to the court that race was a necessary factor to consider in UT's admissions in order to achieve the benefits of diversity. The court went on to say that "nothing in Grutter prohibits a university from using both race-neutral alternatives and race itself, provided such an effort is necessary to achieve the educational benefits that stem from sufficient student diversity. Such efforts should in fact be encouraged as the next logical step toward the day when consideration of a person's race becomes completely unnecessary."

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