Washington — The University of Michigan defended its practice of giving preference in admissions to the children of alumni after the state’s solicitor general told the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday that eliminating the tradition would improve the university’s diversity.
Kelly Cunningham, a University of Michigan spokeswoman, said the school doesn’t award points for being a relative of an alumni, but said it is a factor in making admissions decisions.
“Every application is carefully read at least twice. Alumni ties to the university is just one factor among many that we look at when holistically considering applications for the entering class. We have no point system,” she said.
Solicitor General John Bursch told the court the U-M could eliminate alumni preferences as other schools have done.
“That’s certainly one way that tilts the playing field away from underrepresented minorities,” Bursch said in arguing in favor of the 2006 voter-approved Proposal 2 that was invalidated by a federal appeals court.
Bursch also said Michigan could be recruiting more students who are eligible for federal Pell Grants.
“The number of students who have Pell Grants is half what it is at more progressive institutions like (the University of California) Berkeley and the University of Texas at Austin. So the University of Michigan could be trying harder,” Bursch said.
The university has made strides in reaching out to lower-income applicants who qualify for Pell Grants, Cunningham said.
“We know that when lower-income students do apply, they are admitted and enroll at the same rate as applicants from other socioeconomic levels,” she said. “We are working hard every day to reach out to low-income students, and we are making progress.
“That said, focusing on socioeconomic diversity is not a sufficient guarantee for generating racial diversity because lower socioeconomic students may not necessarily come from diverse ethnic backgrounds.”
At the time of two landmark 2003 Supreme Court cases on U-M’s use of affirmative action in law school and undergraduate admissions, the university used a 150-point system for undergraduate applicants. At the time, underrepresented minorities received 20 points for that status — and points were awarded for other factors — including four points for being a relative of an alumnus.
Bursch suggested favoring the children of alumni means the school isn’t trying other race-neutral ways to improve diversity.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor questioned whether dropping alumni preferences would make sense.
“It’s always wonderful for minorities that they finally get in, they finally have children and now you’re going to do away for that preference for them,” Sotomayor said. “It seems that the game posts keep changing every few years for minorities.”
Bursch said the current admissions system wouldn’t help minorities. “Given the makeup of Michigan’s alumni right now, certainly that playing field would be tilted the other way,” he said.