In 2008, Abigail Fisher was a high school senior devastated when her dream school rejected her application for admission. Now, seven years later, she's in a position to change the way colleges operate nationwide.
The U.S. Supreme Court was scheduled to hear oral arguments Wednesday in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, a case centered around the constitutionality of affirmative action in college admissions. In their second time before the justices, Fisher's attorneys will again argue that the school discriminated against her because she was white. They want the court to rule that the Constitution doesn't allow "the use of racial preferences in admissions decisions where, as here, they are neither narrowly tailored nor necessary to meet a compelling, otherwise unsatisfied, educational interest," according to their appeal.
Critics of race-conscious admissions like Fisher allege the practice is outdated, ineffective and unfair, while proponents say it's a necessary option for colleges hoping to address issues of campus diversity. Dozens of civil rights and education organizations have filed friend-of-the-court briefs backing one side or another, and although the decision itself won't come until next year, all eyes were on the court this week after recent protests against racism at the University of Missouri, Yale University in Connecticut and several other schools. Here's what you need to know:
What Does Abigail Fisher Want? Fisher, who is white, applied to the University of Texas at Austin under a program where all seniors in the top 10 percent of their class were automatically admitted. But she wasn't in the top 10 percent, so her application was considered with the rest in a holistic review process that accounted for academic achievements and extracurricular activities as well as race. Fisher wasn't accepted, though she claimed some of her minority peers with lower scores were.
She sued on the grounds that the university policy violated the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause, and a district court ruled in favor of the school. She appealed, and the circuit court upheld the decision, Slate reported. Then she appealed to the Supreme Court.
However, the university argued that Ms. Fisher's application would not have had a different verdict in any case. "Although one African-American and four Latino applicants with lower combined academic and personal achievement scores than Ms. Fisher’s were provisionally admitted, so were 42 white applicants whose scores were identical to or lower than hers. Similarly, 168 black and Latino students with academic and personal achievement profiles that were as good as, or better than, Ms. Fisher’s were also denied, according to the university," Elise Boddie, a law professor at Rutgers, wrote in the New York Times this week.
How Has The Supreme Court Ruled In Past Cases? The court has taken up affirmative action admissions cases before. It previously upheld an affirmative action policy in the 1978 case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. In the 2003 decision on Grutter v. Bollinger, the justices ruled that the University of Michigan's law school didn't violate the Equal Protection Clause with its race-conscious admission policy because "student body diversity is a compelling state interest that can justify the use of race in university admissions," according to the majority opinion. But the court also decided the University of Michigan's undergraduate policy did violate the Constitution because it wasn't narrowly tailored enough. Just last year, the justices upheld a Michigan state law banning affirmative action in admissions.
What Happened During The First Fisher Case? When the court ruled on Fisher in 2013, it sent the case back to the federal appeals court, requesting that it look at whether the policy meets strict scrutiny -- whether it was narrow enough, according to SCOTUS Blog. "Narrow tailoring also requires that the reviewing court verify that it is 'necessary' for a university to use race to achieve the educational benefits of diversity," the opinion read. In 2014, the appeals court upheld the university's policy.
The Supreme Court announced in June its plan to take up the case again. “I hope the justices will rule that UT is not allowed to treat undergraduate applicants differently because of their race or ethnicity,” Fisher told reporters.
How Diverse Are U.S. Colleges? Numbers of minority students in college in general have been improving over the past few decades. The number of college students who were Hispanic jumped from 4 percent to 15 percent between 1976 and 2012, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. The number of college students who were black increased from 10 percent to 15.
But their presence at the nation's most selective schools -- which have a reputation for producing higher-achieving graduates -- is still lacking. A 2012 study from Stanford University in Stanford, California, found that through 2004, white students were five times as likely to enroll at a highly selective college as black students. And white students were three times more likely than Hispanic students to do so.
Nyah Macklin, a 21-year-old senior at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, said diversity on campus is critical in order to have scholarly discussions about global issues. "If you have a very homogenous student body -- and one that is predominantly white -- you're missing a large portion of this nation's experiences, this nation's background, this nation's history," Macklin, who is the first black woman to be student body president at Brandeis, said.
What Happens In States Without Affirmative Action? Eight states have outlawed affirmative action in admissions. Instead, they've opted for using percent plans like Texas', considering socioeconomic data, upping recruitment efforts and stopping legacy programs that favor relatives of alumni, according to the Century Foundation, a think tank in New York City.
Stella Flores, the director of access and equality at the Steinhardt Institute for Higher Education Policy at New York University, said race-conscious admissions was the most effective option she's seen for attempting to diversify a student body. "We're essentially choosing to not have an effective response to the diversification of America," Flores said.
Why Are College Students Protesting? After more than two years of widespread protests over police officers' treatment of young black Americans in cities like Chicago, Baltimore, New York and Ferguson, Missouri, activism came to college campuses. Students at the University of Missouri in Columbia forced the system president to resign in November for failing to address several racist incidents, including discovery of a swastika drawn in feces in a residence hall and students yelling racial slurs. The movement has spread to institutions like Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California.
It's unclear whether the demonstrations caught the notice of the Supreme Court justices. George Washington, a lawyer in Detroit who has argued to defend affirmative action, said the protests probably weren't enough to change anyone's mind.
"The court is a political institution -- it is now, it always has been," Washington said. "The fact that students are demonstrating [on this] and people on the police brutality across the country absolutely changes the climate and improves the chance of winning. Whether it improves it enough or not, I don't know."