Gratz v. Bollinger

In Gratz v. Bollinger (2003), White applicants who were not admitted as undergraduates to the University of Michigan filed suit claiming racial discrimination. In a companion case, Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), another plaintiff challenged the University of Michigan Law School admissions process. Both cases drew extensive media coverage, as approximately 100 amicus (friend of the court) briefs were filed by a variety of organizations to provide the Supreme Court with additional evidence and arguments. The Supreme Court threw out the undergraduate policy (Gratz), while sustaining the other (Grutter).

Gratz and Grutter were controversial because the undergraduate and law school admissions policies at the University of Michigan included voluntary racebased affirmative action to ensure the educational benefits of a diverse student body. Both cases raised the question of whether diversity was an important enough educational goal that the race of applicants could be considered during the admissions process. In Gratz, the Supreme Court ruled that diversity is a compelling interest in higher education. However, the Court ruled that the University’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions (OUA) award of a predetermined 20 points for being an underrepresented minority violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution because it did not include a significant individualized review of applications.

Compelling Interest

When institutions of higher education use race and ethnicity as categories in the admissions process to diversify their student bodies, the Supreme Court applies a two-part test to evaluate whether the use of race passes “strict scrutiny” and is therefore constitutional. First, the Court must determine whether a policy serves a “compelling governmental interest,” a high standard. The goal of the policy must be especially important and supported by sufficient evidence to meet the first part of the test. In reviewing the University of Michigan’s admissions policies, the Court ruled that diversity is a compelling interest and resolved a disagreement among the lower federal courts about whether race is a permissible factor in admissions decisions.

The Supreme Court had last ruled on affirmative action in the higher-education context in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978). Although Justice Powell in Bakke stated that diversity was a compelling interest, there had been a debate for 25 years regarding whether the majority of the Court adopted his view. The Court’s opinions in Grutter and Gratz clarify that diversity is a compelling interest in the context of higher education. The Court noted the substantial benefits of admitting a diverse student body, including cross-racial understanding, breaking down racial stereotypes, enlightening classroom discussions, better learning outcomes, and enabling all students to understand persons of different races.

Narrowly Tailored Policy

The second prong of the strict scrutiny test requires a policy to be “narrowly tailored” to satisfy the compelling governmental interest. The purpose of the narrowtailoring test is to make certain that the means chosen “fit” the compelling goal so closely that there is little or no possibility that the motive for the classification was racial prejudice or stereotype. According to the Court, in order for a race-conscious admissions policy to be narrowly tailored, it cannot use a quota system. A racial quota, declared the Court, insulates a group of applicants with certain ethnic or racial characteristics from competition with other applicants. The Court also pointed out that a quota reserves a certain fixed number of opportunities exclusively for certain minority groups and that this is unconstitutional.

The undergraduate policy, the subject of Gratz, failed to satisfy the narrowly tailored part of the strict scrutiny test because the Court reasoned that the University of Michigan did not provide a sufficiently individualized consideration of candidates’ overall qualifications in seeking to promote diversity. The undergraduate policy was based on a 150-point scale. Up to 110 points could be awarded based on so-called academic factors, including grades, test scores, quality of high school, and strength of high school curriculum. Up to 40 points could be awarded based on “soft” factors, including 10 points for in-state students, 4 points for children of alumni, and 20 points for athletes. The subject of Gratz was the 20 points automatically awarded to applicants from underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities (African American, Native American, and Hispanic). The Court did not think that awarding 20 points to every underrepresented minority, without considering background, experience, or other individual qualities, provided meaningful individualized review of applicants. To the Court, this lack of individualized review meant that the policy was not narrowly tailored to meet the goal of diversity.

The Court also recognized that the OUA policy included a process for flagging underrepresented minorities’ applications and individually reviewing the applications. Even so, the Court maintained that flagging was an exception and that the majority of students were admitted based solely on the 150-point index scale. Arguably more important to the Court was the fact that flagging occurred only after the applicant had already been awarded the 20-point diversity bonus. Therefore, the majority of the Court struck down the OUA policy because it lacked sufficient individualized review.

It is important to note that in Grutter and Gratz, the Supreme Court ruled that diversity is a compelling interest in higher education and therefore race may be considered, along with other diversity factors, in the admissions process. Taken together, the Court’s opinions in the Grutter and Gratz cases reinforce the importance of using flexible, individualized review when considering race as a factor in the admissions process.

Karen Miksch

See also Affirmative Action; DeFunis v. Odegaard; Equal Protection Analysis; Grutter v. Bollinger

Legal Citations

  • Gratz v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 244 (2003). 
  • Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003). 
  • Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 (1978).