Holistic review is not about race

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Everyone knows the Top 10 Percent law gives Texas public high school students in that tier automatic admission to UT. But how does the remaining portion of the class — 25 percent as mandated by law — get admitted? What do university admissions officers look for in what’s known as the holistic review process?

The answer is not what you’d expect. In recent years, underrepresented minority students have made up a larger percentage of the automatic admits than those admitted under holistic review. According to data provided by the Office of Admissions, from 2007 through 2011, UT admitted lower percentages of African American and Latino students through holistic review than through automatic admission. For example, in 2010 and 2011, 6 percent of automatic admissions were granted to black students, while only 5 percent of holistic review admissions were granted to black students. The same trend stands for 2008 and 2009, but it is even more dramatic for Latinos. In 2010, 28 percent of automatically admitted students were Latino, while only 12 percent of holistic review admits were Latinos. In 2011, 29 percent of automatic admits were Latino and 14 percent of holistic review admissions went to Latino students.

Abigail Fisher, a white woman who was denied admission in 2008, sued the University, alleging that it discriminated against her on the basis of race. Her case is scheduled to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on Oct. 10.

According to Fisher and her supporters, white applicants are disadvantaged by holistic review. But the numbers show that white applicants benefited considerably from holistic review. In 2011, 41 percent of automatic and 58 percent of holistic review admissions went to white students. The same trend was seen each year from 2007 to 2010.

In other words, UT did not use its holistic review process to admit higher percentages of underrepresented minorities than earned automatic admission. Instead, the university granted drastically higher percentages of holistic review admissions to white students.

The Supreme Court established in its 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, the most recent affirmative action case about higher education to reach the high court, that race may be considered as a factor in admissions as long as schools do not use a quota system. In a recent interview with The Daily Texan, UT President William Powers, Jr. responded to Fisher’s supporters’ allegations that UT violates the Grutter precedent by using a de facto quota system to match the racial composition of its student body with that of the state of Texas. “That’s incorrect,” Powers said. “It is true that African Americans and Latinos are underrepresented. When we say underrepresented, we mean there’s not sufficient diversity in the classrooms and on the campus.”

The recently released numbers seem to prove Powers’ underlying point. For the past five incoming classes, UT has not used its holistic review process to let in higher percentages of minority students; it has done just the opposite by admitting vastly higher percentages of white students and considerably lower percentages of minority students than were granted automatic admission.

Fisher’s lawyer, Burt Rein, agrees that UT’s holistic admissions don’t achieve diversity. He also notes that Fisher’s brief makes the point that not all holistic admissions are about race. He told the Texan in an interview, “It’s very difficult to say if you look at the statistics how much of a contribution to their goal of diversity UT achieves through this use of race. We looked at it [racial composition data] prior to the use of race, and subsequently, and there’s a very small difference in the percentage of minorities admitted … The number of people who could actually attribute their entry to the use of race was very small. Is this policy just a way to label everyone by race? There’s an irony in the case. Texas law has been changed to cap Top 10 Percent admissions at 75 percent [of an incoming class], but if the case is not successful for UT the cap is removed. The effect is letting the top ten percent expand, therefore increasing the number of minorities admitted.”

Kedra Ishop, vice provost and director of admissions for UT- Austin, affirms the necessity of holistic review for a wide range of reasons, including diversity. In an email, Ishop wrote, “The Top Ten Percent rule has helped with diversity, that is not a matter for debate.

However it is also important that the university assemble its class along a broad range of individual characteristics, not just class rank. Employers don’t hire based on GPA; neither should a university accept 100 percent of its students on a single criteria [sic]. The holistic review process for those not automatically admissible is a complement to the Top Ten Percent plan, enabling the university to assemble a class that is broadly diverse and academically excellent.”

About the recent trends shown in holistic review admissions data, Ishop writes: “The statistics to which you refer highlight the fact that the use of race as a part of holistic review may benefit any student — black, Hispanic, white or Asian. This is not a quota system.”

Confusing, yes, but by our reckoning the numbers challenge the arguments made by both UT and Fisher. Both of them hinge on the constitutionality of favoring minority students in the holistic review process. UT argues that the use of race ranks as one of many factors, considered by its admissions officials when holistically reviewing applicants with the interest of increasing campus diversity. Fisher argues that UT’s admissions policy constitutes racial discrimination against white applicants. But if UT officials really are trying to give minority students a leg up through holistic review, they’re not doing a very effective job. UT’s murky explanation of how it admits students conflicts with the straightforward proposition that the Top Ten Percent rule has made to high school students all over the state: Get good grades and you can go to UT-Austin.

This is not a private school, and while other public schools maintain more selective holistic review, the Top Ten Percent rule is fair. Fisher challenges that UT’s holistic review results in a racist policy. But, based on the numbers, we conclude that UT doesn’t just want to admit more racially diverse students; it wants control over who to admit.