Research Points to Benefits of Diverse Student Body in Science-Related Fields

Angelo Ancheta (left), Liliana Garces, Gary Orfield, and Shirley Malcom at the AERA briefing. | AAAS/ all photos by Earl Lane

With the U.S. Supreme Court to hear arguments 9 December on a case challenging the use of race-conscious admissions at the University of Texas at Austin, a top AAAS official said there is convincing research on the benefits of a diverse student population in science-related fields.

Shirley Malcom, director of Education and Human Resources Programs at AAAS, said researchers have found that problem-solving skills, critical thinking, and self-confidence benefit when students interact with a diverse group of peers. "These are the qualities that we wish to foster for all students in education in science and engineering," Malcom said.

She has long advocated bringing underrepresented minorities into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, both for the benefits diversity brings to the students and those with whom they interact but also as an important means of expanding the STEM workforce at a time when U.S. economic development and national security depend on maintaining U.S. preeminence in science and technology.

"There is strong evidence of the benefits of diversity in STEM," Malcom said at a 7 December briefing organized by the American Educational Research Association (AERA) on the Supreme Court's reconsideration of Abigail Fisher's case against the University of Texas at Austin (UT).

"Assessing the potential of students to be successful in STEM fields goes beyond just looking at tests scores and grades, though these are important," Malcom said. In "holistic review," the approach taken by UT, admissions officials look "not only at grades but also at what barriers students have overcome, whether they have had research opportunity and experience, whether they have evidenced persistence or determination in other parts of their lives, and many more factors," she said.

Shirley Malcom | AAAS

AERA and nine other academic and scientific societies, including AAAS, filed an amicus curie (or "friend of the court") brief in October urging the court to consider the body of scientific evidence relevant to the Fisher case. The brief notes that "research studies continue to show that student body diversity leads to significant educational benefits and prevents the harms of racial isolation."

UT automatically admits Texas high school students who graduate in the top 10% of their class. Other applicants are given a holistic review, which includes consideration of race as one of many other factors in admission. Fisher, who is white and did not graduate in the top 10%, was denied admission. She sued UT in 2008 for racial discrimination. A lower court issued a summary judgment in favor of the school, and the case was appealed.

In 2013, in a 7-1 vote (Justice Elena Kagan recused herself), the Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower courts, saying they had failed to adequately determine that UT's use of race as a factor in its admissions was necessary and that the policy was "narrowly tailored." Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, following the Supreme Court's guidelines, again ruled in favor of UT. Fisher appealed once again to the Supreme Court, which agreed to take the case.

The Supreme Court has previously recognized the body of scientific research on diversity, concluding in a 2003 decision involving admissions at the University of Michigan (Grutter v. Bollinger) that "numerous studies show that student body diversity promotes learning outcomes, and better prepares students for an increasingly diverse workforce and society, and better prepares them as professionals."

The question now is whether the Court might substantially narrow the circumstances in which schools can employ race-conscious strategies. Angelo Ancheta, counsel of record for the AERA amicus curiae brief, said he expects a divided court and a possible 4 to 4 vote (with Justice Kagan again not participating in the decision). Justice Anthony Kennedy, a key vote, is expected to support race-conscious admissions in some form, Ancheta said. If the court is tied, he said, the lower court decision in favor of the UT policy would stand.

Angelo Ancheta and Liliana Garces | AAAS

Liliana Garces, assistant professor of higher education at Pennsylvania State University, said racial diversity has fallen significantly at schools that are barred from considering race as a factor in admissions. Bans on race-sensitive admissions at public institutions across six states have led to a 17% drop in the percentage of enrolled students in medical schools who are Latino, African American or Native American, Garces and her colleagues have found.

The need to increase the number of underrepresented minorities in STEM field is clear, Malcom said. Of 9568 doctorates awarded in engineering in 2014, she said, only 167 went to African Americans and 243 went to Latinos who were U.S. citizens and permanent residents. "This is the size of the talent pool from which future faculty will be drawn," she said.

Gary Orfield, professor of education, law, political science, and urban planning at UCLA, said opponents of the UT admission policy claim there are nonracial alternatives that do the job just as well, including the 10% plan that UT now uses as its first phase for admission; approaches using socioeconomic status rather than race as a factor; and special outreach and recruitment efforts. But Orfield said "the best evidence suggests that none of them can effectively achieve diversity."

He argued that most of the claimed success of UT's 10% plan is illusory. Growth in the share of Latinos at UT comes not from the plan, Orfield said, but from a decline in the white share of young Texans as the state experiences a massive demographic shift. The relative share of Latinos gaining access to UT has declined rather than increased, he said. He also said the plan has not achieved significant representation of African Americans on campus, with them accounting for just 4.4% of the student body in 2014-2015.

AAAS has had a long history of supporting more diversity in science-related fields and has noted the setbacks that can occur when courts, state lawmakers, or regulators try to scale back efforts at more inclusive admissions policies. The Supreme Court, in its Grutter decision, held there was a compelling national interest in having diverse student bodies. Malcom said the difficult challenge of achieving that diversity will be made only tougher if the Court upholds that compelling interest in the Fisher case but puts new restrictions on the means for achieving it.