photo: Corbis

This college application season, Latinos have many reasons to celebrate: In just six years, Latino enrollment in college has zoomed up by 240 percent. And we’re graduating at higher rates, too. Goodbye, high school-dropout stereotype!

But there’s other news that might put a damper on our progress: There's a case in the Supreme Court that could eliminate affirmative action in public college admissions. It all began in 2008, when a white woman named Abigail Fisher got rejected from the University of Texas. Although her grades and test scores were too low to make the cut no matter her race, she blamed African-American and Latino students for taking her spot through affirmative action and subsequently sued the university for violating her rights.

The case is now before the Supreme Court for the second time. If the court decides against UT, that could mean all U.S. public universities will have to stop using race as a factor in college admits.

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Despite what the Abigail Fishers of the world think, other types of affirmative action — like being the child of rich alumni or being an athlete — are way more advantageous for college applicants than being from a “minority” group. In 2015 Harvard, Yale, and Princeton each admitted 25 to 33 percent of the "legacy" applicants who were children of alumni, while only admitting about 6 percent of regular applicants. And fully 20 percent of each incoming class at Ivy League colleges is set aside for athletes. One study found that at selective colleges, athletes had a 30 percentage point advantage over non-athletes.

Meanwhile, Latinos only had a 3 percent point advantage over white non-Hispanic applicants. “I don't think the general public has really good insight into how colleges and universities make their decisions,” says Charles Guerrero, a college access counselor in New York City. “Race-based affirmative action has become the big issue, but the reality is that colleges set all types of preferences when evaluating students.”

So “why single out race,” asks Guerrero, “as the only criteria that should come under scrutiny if we think affirmative action is not acceptable?”

Race has been a big factor in college admissions throughout history, just not in the way today's critics imagine. For a long time, one group got huge preferences in college admissions: White, European-American, Protestant men. In fact, the University of Texas at one time refused to admit black students (the first one entered the school by court order in 1950) and Harvard’s president in the 1930s proposed setting a low limit to how many Jewish students could be admitted, to keep the university from “ruin."

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In the 1960s, one of the successes of the civil rights movement was affirmative action. The idea was that jobs and universities should try to level the playing field by giving extra preference to women, African-Americans, Latinos, and other under-represented groups, in order to counterbalance their clear preference for admitting and hiring white men.

Today colleges use affirmative action to ensure a diverse campus. Interestingly, some research shows that the people who have most benefited from affirmative action (including in the workplace) are, ironically, white women.


So why do people want to get rid of affirmative action? During the current Supreme Court case, conservative Justice Antonin Scalia attempted to argue that African-American students were actually hurt by affirmative action and should stay at “slower-track” colleges where they won’t be overly challenged. While his comments stank of racism, he was just repeating what some studies have tried to prove — that African-Americans and Latinos have higher college drop-out rates because they are being accepted at colleges a step up from their abilities.

However, other studies prove that students of color actually have higher graduation rates at better universities. Counselors say they do see many low-income first generation Latino students struggling to stay in school, but say that the obstacles are due to large gaps in academic preparation, and poverty, not ability. New York City public school guidance counselor Katherine Martinez insists these are not reasons to get rid of affirmative action but instead “the colleges need to provide the support.”

Steven Colón, a dean of student life at William Paterson University in New Jersey, says we're missing the bigger picture:

"The intention of affirmative action is a good thing. But it’s still a Band-Aid on the real educational shortcomings and problems that persist in poor communities. Students are under prepared and struggle to keep up when in a classroom with others that come from better academic backgrounds."

The consequences of undoing affirmative action would be dire. When affirmative action was banned in Texas and California public universities previously, colleges saw a huge drop off in the number of students of color attending. In Texas, there was a 40 percent decrease in diversity! A ban could mean that will happen again, "and that will have a real chilling effect," says Guerrero. "That means fewer qualified students of color might apply.”

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One solution three states (Florida, Texas, and California) have in place is guaranteed admission for the top 7 to 10 percent of all state high school graduates. While this doesn’t overtly mention race, the highly segregated schools and neighborhoods across most of the country mean this policy admits at least some low-income students of color. Since Latinos are most likely to attend segregated schools, these plans definitely help us. But it still attracts less minority students than affirmative action.

So how likely is it that affirmative action will be overturned in the Supreme Court? Put it this way: The case may drag on a while. So long that a justice could retire, and the next president will appoint a new judge. Depending on who our next president is, we could have a liberal judge who will likely support affirmative action, or another near-fascist racist like Scalia.

As a growing part of the electorate, that means in the end, this could be in our hands.