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What college admissions would look like if affirmative action is reversed

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In a few months, we can expect a Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action and university admissions. Justices heard a combined case yesterday against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. The lengthy arguments showed many justices with strong opinions and sharp questions. And our correspondent Nina Totenberg says if the court's supermajority does what it sounded like, they will end the ability of schools to consider race as one of many factors in admissions. Of course, we do not know what they will do, but let's talk about what we do know with Stella Flores. She's associate professor of higher education and public policy at The University of Texas at Austin. Welcome.

STELLA FLORES: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Did it also sound to you that most justices want to end affirmative action as we know it?

FLORES: That was the gist of the argument response, which we're not very surprised about. What is disconcerting is this constant denial that race still is part of not only our higher ed system, but even how our K-12 system is currently constructed, how it's racially segregated and how all of that contributes to college enrollment and completion.

INSKEEP: Oh, now this is very interesting because there was a lot of history in these arguments. I got to hear some of them. And the plaintiffs argued that maybe things that looked like affirmative action were OK in the 1860s, when there was a remedial effort to make up for slavery, but that it's not justified now. You're saying there are facts on the ground that suggest it's justified now?

FLORES: Well, absolutely. Our schools - our K-12 public schools have never been more segregated - racially segregated - than they have in the past, partially due to the dismantling of integration decrees. We also know we're a more diverse society. And overall, the numbers are increasing. But the way we're segregated by race and income, especially in our public schools, especially in our high schools, is still very present. America's original sin of slavery still carries weight today.

INSKEEP: Let's address some of the things that the justices and the plaintiffs brought up here. Justice John Roberts - Chief Justice Roberts observed that the court upheld affirmative action, I believe, in 2003. But that ruling said this isn't supposed to last forever - maybe 25 years - and, in fact, most of the 25 years is up. The basic idea of not having it forever is the idea that people should not be judged by race. And affirmative action, in some sense, does judge people by race. What is the answer to that argument?

FLORES: Well, I don't think you should make public policy based on a hope that is not based on data. All the research says that we are becoming a more racially segregated society. We've seen increasingly how race is becoming part of many or has been part of most of our institutions - housing, criminal justice. You know, the data speak for themselves. And it's nice to have a hope, but hope does not increase college completion. Hope does not equalize opportunities.

INSKEEP: Is it clear to you that there is not a university in this country that is selecting students purely based on race, to fill quotas?

FLORES: Well, I - it's illegal to use quotas, so universities should not be doing that. But I think every university in every state should have the freedom - the academic freedom - to choose a student body that best meets its needs. So the formula in Montana is going to look different than the formula in Florida. And what the use of race as one factor of consideration does - it allows universities to construct a student body that meets the needs of the state and, ultimately, the nation.

INSKEEP: Oh, meaning that we all, regardless of our race, have an interest in a diverse student body at universities generally.

FLORES: Absolutely. I mean, if we were a country that was 90% white, I think that would be very different. But we're a country that's increasingly diverse. And unfortunately, the debate gets framed as if there are special advantages for groups when really it's just an opportunity to be considered. No admissions officer is going to just choose someone because they're Black. We need to make sure the students are qualified, they can succeed and that they can represent based on their academic characteristics, as well a part of the leadership pipeline. So one point in admissions is really also a pathway to leadership in this country.

INSKEEP: Very quickly here, let's - the justices briefly discussed alternatives. If they were to throw out affirmative action, what could universities do to make sure that all kinds of students, all kinds of applicants get a chance? Your state, Texas, The University of Texas has adopted, over the years, a system of admitting kids from the top 10% of every school, which means that kids have an opportunity regardless of where they grew up, even if the schools are segregated and everything else. And in a few seconds, are there other ways to effectively get the same result and help disadvantaged kids without considering race at all?

FLORES: The research is exceptionally clear. There's no other alternative method that will racially diversify a student body other than the use of race as one factor of consideration.

INSKEEP: The University of Texas system doesn't work?

FLORES: The university system - the 10% plan doesn't work to racially diversify a student body without also using the use of race as one factor of consideration.

INSKEEP: Stella Flores of The University of Texas at Austin, I feel we've just scratched the surface. But this has been very insightful. Thank you so much.

FLORES: Thank you so much, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.