Even government researchers have had trouble pinning down the role of race in law school admissions. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held a briefing in June 2006, partially in response to proposed legislation that would have required universities and colleges receiving federal money to explain to the U.S. Department of Education how they weigh applicants' race.The bill failed, and the commission concluded: "Little information is currently available concerning the extent to which law schools consider race in their admissions decisions and the academic and career fortunes of their intended beneficiaries."
Because the Supreme Court has banned campuses from using quotas or awarding minorities any points advantage, it's harder to nail down how much difference race makes, Cornblatt said. "Race is a factor in that the faculty believes in having a critical mass of minority students," he said. "To get there, you add race into the mix of things you consider. But we don't do math in this office. I can't point to a formula."
QUANTIFYING RACE'S ROLE
Researchers and interest groups have attempted to quantify race's role, particularly at public law schools, which are subject to open-records laws. For example, the conservative think tank the Center for Equal Opportunity last year analyzed 2005 admissions data from the University of Wisconsin Law School and concluded that the school admitted a much higher proportion of blacks than whites or Asians with equivalent or higher academic credentials.
Separately, Sander analyzed admissions data from six public law schools both before and after Grutter and concluded that admissions became more focused on race following the ruling. Both he and Cornblatt predict that diversity at the most selective law schools would decline should the Supreme Court ban affirmative action, but they were less convinced that such a ban would significantly affect the number of minorities in law school overall because they may simply matriculate at lower-ranking schools.
Perhaps the best indication of what law schools might look like in a post-affirmative action world can be found at public law schools in states that have independently ended the practice, including California, Florida, Michigan and Washington. A 2003 study of enrollment rates at five highly ranked law schools in such states found that the number of black students dropped by two-thirds and the number of Latinos by more than one-third.
Minority enrollment at Michigan declined by about 50 percent after the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, which bans preferential treatment for minorities in college admissions, passed in 2006, said senior assistant dean for admission, financial aid and career planning Sarah Zearfoss. (The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit overturned that initiative on November 15 on equal-protection ground, but it had remained in effect pending that ruling.)
Zearfoss joined Michigan's admissions office in 2001, just before a federal trial judge struck down the affirmative-action plan during the early skirmishing in Grutter. The intervening years until the Supreme Court's ruling were a blur of discussions in which law school admissions officers contemplated the future, she said. "I haven't seen as much activity this time around. It seems like there is a lot of room for the Supreme Court to make a lot of different decisions, which is why people might not be trying to get out in front of a negative decision."
Zearfoss worries that a national affirmative-action ban at the undergraduate level would narrow the pipeline of minorities who even consider going to law school. About 80 percent of the law school's applicants come from outside the state, where most universities and colleges do take race into account. "If you don't have the pool to begin with, the whole problem just gets exacerbated," she said.
There's no obvious way to achieve a diverse student body without considering race, but some admissions officials are contemplating different approaches should it come to that. Shifting the focus to socioeconomic standing might be the next best thing, Cornblatt said, but that could lead to a different set of problems. For one thing, gathering financial information about applicants would be complicated, he said. Furthermore, law schools might be reluctant to enroll students who can't pay full fare.
Gardina fears that eliminating race from the admissions process would prompt law schools to lean even more heavily on standardized tests that tend to favor white students. "If the Supreme Court says it's unconstitutional [to consider race], does that take the external pressure off law schools to become more diverse?" she wondered. "Will law schools be less likely to look past an LSAT score or a GPA? My fear is that this will interfere with the progress we've made."
Karen Sloan can be contacted at email@example.com.