In Fisher v. University of Texas, the Supreme Court is once again considering the extent to which a university can use affirmative action to increase the number of underrepresented minorities among its student body. Part of the UT program under challenge is a so-called "holistic" admission process. Over at HuffPo, Samantha Robles explains and defends the process:
Diversity is a complex concept that is not limited to what we put on our college applications. The "top 10 percent rule" in Texas helps bring students from various rural communities, social classes, sexual orientations, races and learning levels; however, it is not enough to achieve the amount of diversity needed at this university. Holistic review is important to UT because it allows for a person to be recognized by everything that makes them whole and unique.
Sorry, but I don't buy it. UCLA long has used a holistic admissions process and, as I have noted before, it is fraught with problems:
UC Berkeley's experience with its similar system of comprehensive review suggests that holistic admissions in fact will affect the racial composition of the student body:
Although race is not overtly mentioned as a factor in the comprehensive-review admissions process, the numbers indicate that it plays a significant role. A Los Angeles Times analysis shows that at UC Berkeley, low-scoring blacks and Hispanics were admitted at twice the rate of similarly scoring Asians and whites.
A cynic thus might wonder whether the readers charged with holistically evaluating admission files share UM President Coleman's refusal to "stand by while the very heart and soul of this great university is threatened," and are taking into account the race of candidates despite Proposition 209's ban. Indeed, when Berkeley adopted comprehensive review, student activist Hoku Jeffrey noted that it gave "admissions officials the ability on paper to reverse the segregation ... and that's what must be done."
The trouble with holistic admissions is that the readers [i.e., the admissions officials who review the applications] don't have to explain why they make their admission decisions. They simply score the files. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the readers thus could systematically bias their scores so as to promote diversity, and no one would be the wiser. Even if required to offer an explanation for their scores, moreover, readers likely would point to some wrinkle other than race in each application that purportedly justified their decision.
If the goal is a color-blind society, holistic admissions is not the way to get there.
Update: At Balkanization, Joey Fishkin discusses Fisher and holistic admissions, concluding that:
At this point, it seems to me that there is no way this Court or any court can actually eliminate the use of race from college admissions. They can try. New anti-affirmative-action decisions may move the demarcation lines that tell colleges where and how to use race in admissions. But such decisions will not cause admissions officers to become truly blind to race, unless they require colleges to stop engaging in subjective efforts to build diverse and vibrant classes, and instead demand some mechanical metric of grades and test scores. There is no constitutional reason to require such an outcome, and at any rate, elite colleges would never accept it. Still, victories for anti-affirmative-action plaintiffs might have a number of important effects: reducing somewhat the overall level of racial diversity on campuses; encouraging holistic review processes that further submerge the use of race; encouraging the further use of facially race-neutral policies carefully calibrated to achieve racial diversity; and encouraging schools to shift more of the burden to applicants to think and write about race in the admissions process themselves (as in “tell us how you would contribute to the diversity of our school” or “tell us about obstacles you have overcome”). These are among the many “winks, nods, and disguises” to which Justice Souter referred in his dissent in Gratz, in which he asked whether perhaps honesty was a better policy.
In other words, given the commitments of those who run elite academic institutions to a particular ideology about diversity, it simply doesn't matter how Fisher comes out. Affirmative action will continue in even more carefully camouflaged ways. Holistic admissions simply set the precedent.