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A Victory For Affirmative Action, And For Many Colleges A Sigh Of Relief

Rob Dobi for NPR

The nation's colleges and universities have been on pins and needles waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether race can be a factor in their admissions policies.

And so today's 4-3 rulingupholding the affirmative-action program at the University of Texas at Austin brought a sigh of relief to much of the higher education world.

"The Supreme court has, for the fourth time in the last 40 years, said that if they do it carefully, institutions can consider race as part of admissions without discriminating against someone else," said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, which represents more than 1,700 college presidents.

Yet even thought the court's ruling let stand the policies at the University of Texas, it doesn't mean the issue is going away.

The majority opinion, by Justice Anthony Kennedy, makes clear that upholding the admissions policy "does not necessarily mean the University may rely on that same policy without refinement. It is the University's ongoing obligation to engage in constant deliberation and continued reflection regarding its admissions policies."

"This is not a blank check," Hartle said. "Institutions have to have carefully defined plans." And, he added, "the court has made clear that they will review these plans with great care."

Already there are two other cases in the pipeline challenging affirmative action policies, at the University of North Carolina and Harvard. So, colleges and universities will have to continue to show that consideration of race is necessary — but narrowly tailored to create a diverse student body.

Many universities, like UT, use race as one of multiple factors in helping shape their incoming freshman classes.

The University of Maryland, for example, uses at least 26 factors to help shape its incoming freshman class, says Shannon Gundy, the university's director of undergraduate admissions.

She said today's ruling gives this "holistic" approach to admissions a green light as long as race is only one of various factors.

"Our job is to shape a class of students that's bringing diversity in all of its forms," Gundy said, "and we believe a student's race is an important part."

Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, worried that the ruling will not encourage schools to seek other measures of promoting diversity in their student populations. Kahlenberg is the author of The Remedy: Class, Race and Affirmative Action, and an advocate of income-based, rather than race-based, affirmative action.

"My fear is that colleges will continue with business as usual, recruiting more affluent students of all races," he said. "Right now, rich kids outnumber poor kids 24 to 1, and we're not going to press colleges hard to find alternatives to race."

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