Crossposted on The Hill Congress Blog.
Members of Congress and advocates on the Hill should take notice of a case being heard today at the Supreme Court. Fisher v. Texas has gotten much attention as “the affirmative action case;” however, the outcome of the case may also have ramifications on the country’s economic future. For this reason, Fortune 100 companies, small business organizations, military leaders and the Brennan Center for Justice have filed amicus briefs asking the Court to uphold its longstanding precedent.
As lawmakers search for ways to boost our economic growth – by trying to create a bipartisan deficit reduction plan and figuring out how to create jobs – they should also keep in mind policies that affect our human capital – our largest economic asset.
Fisher considers a challenge to the admission policy of the University of Texas at Austin. That policy seeks to create a diverse student body, and therefore a diverse workforce. Diversity spurs innovation. When people from different backgrounds and those with different viewpoints come together to exchange ideas and knowledge, it produces new ideas and new knowledge. It creates intellectual and business leaders. In an increasingly competitive world, the United States’ singular advantage is our ability to create, not imitate. As the Fortune 100’s brief notes, inclusive admissions are a “business and economic imperative.”
UT Austin employs a two-pronged admissions system. The school fills 80 percent of its freshman slots by admitting applicants who graduated in the top ten percent of their high school class. This method focuses strictly on grades. The school admits the remaining 20 percent of students by considering their academic and personal achievement. These attributes can include extracurricular activities, work experience, leadership potential, and personal background – including race and class.
UT Austin considers these qualities to evaluate the unique gifts of an applicant. As small business organizations’ brief notes, a student who works part-time through high school gains useful business experience and a star soccer player learns perseverance and teamwork. Similarly, students may face adversity because of their race, religion or class. Overcoming these obstacles often builds maturity and practical problem-solving ability. All these qualities are vital to success in school and business, and are not captured by grades alone.
Notably, this case is not about racial quotas or racial preferences. The Supreme Court has outlawed quotas since 1978. The plaintiff challenging the policy wants to eliminate race as a factor altogether when considering the unique value added of an applicant. But one of the reasons UT Austin considers race is to improve the education of all its students by allowing students to learn different perspective and skills from each other. Far from diluting academics, UT Austin seeks to enhance it. Moreover, UT Austin’s admissions policy recognizes that it takes more to succeed in college – and in the workplace – than high school grades.
Research conclusively shows that a varied workforce is best for the bottom line. Professor Cedric Harris of the University of Illinois studied the diversity of a variety of for-profit companies. He found that “racial diversity is associated with increased sales revenue, more customers, greater market share, and greater relative profits.” Last year, Forbes surveyed top executives worldwide at companies with more than $500 million in revenue. It found “diversity is a key driver of innovation and is a critical component of being successful on a global scale.” Deloitte conducted a similar study and quoted Donald Knauss, chairman and CEO of the Clorox Company: “The business case has been demonstrated quite thoroughly. When you’ve got over one-third of this country as people of color, a diverse workforce benefits in terms of connection and creativity.”
Real life examples also abound. After Ikea hired more Latino employees, executives realized they needed to add warmer colors and larger dining tables to appeal to the increased Latino American buying power. Similarly, women created Campbell’s Select Harvest Soup, which uses ingredients found in homes. The soup line became the country’s top new food product and generated $202 million in sales in its first year.
The Supreme Court has long recognized the constitutionality of universities creating this advantage for the country. Most recently, in Grutter v. Bollinger, the Court upheld the admissions policy of the University of Michigan Law School, after which UT Austin’s policy is modeled. The Court emphasized “that nothing less than the nation’s future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to the ideas and mores of students as diverse as this Nation of many peoples.”
All Americans should hope the Court continues to recognize that inclusive admissions policies are not ways to admit unqualified students. Rather, they are catalysts for innovation and recognize that merit includes more than just grades. Learning from our differences is the key to maintaining the United States’ status as an intellectual and economic leader.