Research News

Vanderbilt expert available for comment on Supreme Court affirmative action case


The U.S. Supreme Court will soon hear a case that could alter the way universities consider race in the admissions process and ultimately put the future of affirmative action at stake.

On Oct. 10, the Supreme Court will hear Fisher v. University of Texas, in which the plaintiff, Abigail Fisher, a white woman who was denied admission to the university, claims the school’s use of race in its admissions policies is unconstitutional.

Vanderbilt University’s Stella Flores says race-neutral policies do not work at the same level of affirmative action. Her research, conducted with the University of Houston’s Catherine Horn, shows institutions would lose educationally critical diversity without such policies.

“Peer-reviewed research overwhelmingly shows that race-neutral methods of admissions do not yield racial and ethnic diversity on college campuses, and in fact, multiple statistical analyses of the effects of race-neutral policies show that the level of race and ethnic diversity decreases under these plans,” said Flores, assistant professor of public policy and higher education at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of education and human development.

Flores cites two main reasons for maintaining race as a factor in the admissions process:

  • Changing demographics:

Demographics are rapidly changing, with Hispanics making up the largest minority in Texas as well as the nation as a whole. Studies show that increases in Hispanic representation are actually due to demographic growth that would have occurred without any policy changes and are therefore not a result of successful educational policies employing race-neutral methods. Moreover, any visible shifts in demographic representations have occurred at non-selective institutions and not elite colleges and universities.

“While demographic shifts in the U.S. population are present in the K-12 public schools, they are far less present in our selective college classrooms,” Flores said. “Demography is important in higher education because the completion of college degrees is going to have a big impact on our economy. If students within the largest minority group – and what will one day be the largest ethnic group altogether in various states – are not accessing and completing college, it’s going to have a big impact on how the economy is for the state and ultimately the county.”

  • “Top 10 percent” plan not reaching disadvantaged populations:

Texas has a “top 10 percent” plan, a program that guarantees university admission to all students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school class. However, research from Flores and Horn, combined with other research on this topic, shows that even under the most optimal conditions, the percent plan has yielded limited results in terms of underrepresented minority enrollment at selective public institutions.

Stella Flores
Stella Flores (Steve Green/Vanderbilt University)

“We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the percentage of underrepresented minority students who qualify for the top 10 percent plan; however, the percent plan seems to hit more advantaged groups more effectively than disadvantaged groups,” Flores said. “The only instances we’ve seen where these [percent plans] work is when there are extremely targeted scholarship programs toward heavily diverse schools, and these effects are still limited.”

Flores was one of 21 researchers nationwide who developed an amicus brief summarizing key research on affirmative action in anticipation of the Fisher v. University of Texas case.

An expert on college access policies, Flores investigates the impact of state and federal policies on college access and completion for low-income, immigrant and underrepresented populations. She has written on the role of alternative admissions plans and financial aid programs in college admissions, demographic changes in higher education, the role of the Hispanic Serving Institution in U.S. higher education policy, and Latino students and community colleges. Her work has been cited in the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court Gratz v. Bollinger decision (dissenting opinion) and in various amicus briefs in the Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger Supreme Court cases on affirmative action in higher education admissions.

Media Note: To schedule an interview with Flores, contact Jennifer Wetzel at (615) 322-NEWS. Vanderbilt has a 24/7 TV and radio studio with a dedicated fiber optic line and ISDN line. Use of the TV studio with Vanderbilt experts is free, except for reserving fiber time. More information on Vanderbilt’s studio.