Grutter v. Bollinger

In Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), the U.S. Supreme Court addressed the question of whether race could be considered in university admissions policies. The Court found that diversity is a compelling university interest and that University of Michigan Law School policy, which considered race as part of an individualized assessment of applicants, was constitutional.

Facts of the Case

Grutter began in December 1997, when Barbara Grutter and other rejected applicants filed suit challenging the use of race by the University of Michigan Law School in its admissions program. In her class action suit, Grutter argued that the law school’s raceconscious admissions plan amounted to racial or ethnic discrimination under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, because it favored Native American, African American, Mexican American, and mainland Puerto Rican applicants.

According to Title VI, citizens cannot be subject to discrimination in programs receiving federal financial assistance on the grounds of color, race, or national origin. The Equal Protection Clause ensures that the government provides the equal protection of the laws to its citizens. In response to Grutter’s claim, the law school argued that in order to demonstrate a commitment to diversity, it sought to enroll a “critical mass” of minority applicants. In so doing, the law school used race as one of many unquantified factors that could enhance an applicant’s chances of admission.

When universities consider race and ethnicity in admissions plans to increase student body diversity, courts must apply a two-part test. A court must first examine whether promoting diversity in higher education is a compelling state interest. More specifically, a court must be satisfied that the goal of an admissions plan is compelling or extremely important. Second, a court must explore whether the means chosen to obtain a diverse student body through a raceconscious admissions program are “narrowly tailored.” In so doing, admissions programs must be flexible in considering several elements of diversity for each applicant. In other words, race-conscious admissions plans may not utilize quotas, but may rely on race as a “plus factor.” To be constitutional, racial classifications must satisfy both parts of the test.

When a federal trial court in Michigan considered the effect of race as a factor in admissions in Grutter, it learned that a significantly higher percentage of minority applicants with lower test scores and lower GPAs were admitted than were nonminority applicants with similar scores. The court decided that diversity was not a compelling state interest, pointing out that that the admissions policy was unconstitutional because it violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The court noted that even if it had found that diversity was a compelling state interest, the law school’s program was not narrowly tailored.

On further review, the Sixth Circuit reversed and vacated the injunction that had prohibited the University of Michigan Law School from using race in its admissions process. The court maintained that constitutional language can support colleges and graduate schools that are seeking a meaningful number of minority students as long as they avoid quota systems. This judgment directly contradicted earlier raceconscious admission cases decided in the Fifth and Eleventh Circuits. The Supreme Court granted certiorari in Grutter v. Bollinger in order to resolve the fate of race-conscious university admissions programs. The Supreme Court also granted certiorari to Gratz v. Bollinger (2003), another University of Michigan case focused on a race-conscious admissions program at the undergraduate level.

The Court’s Ruling

The Supreme Court, in a 5-to-4 decision, upheld the law school’s admissions program. The Court reversed the part of the lower-court’s judgment that enjoined the university from considering the race of the applicant. In its rationale, the majority determined that the state has a substantial interest in the consideration of race and ethnicity in admissions programs if such programs are properly devised.

After the Court indicated that diversity was a compelling governmental interest, it addressed whether the law school’s program was narrowly tailored. The Court was of the opinion that narrow tailoring does not require officials to attempt every conceivable race-neutral policy before adopting affirmative action programs. Rejecting the race-neutral percentage plan arguments, the Court asserted that such plans would be difficult to implement at the graduate school level. The Court affirmed its rejection of percentage plans because such approaches do not permit university officials to conduct individualized assessments of applicants on various qualities valued by universities. The Court was thus convinced that the law school’s policy was narrowly tailored because its affirmative action program carefully ensured that several factors that may contribute to student body diversity were meaningfully considered.

The University of Michigan Law School admissions policy did not set a quota. Instead, the Court acknowledged that university officials used individualized review in a flexible way to admit a critical mass of underrepresented students. The Court contrasted the law school’s process of reading each application to evaluate whether applicants would contribute to diversity with the undergraduate process that awarded points based on membership in a particular racial group. The Court was of the opinion that race may be used in the process as long as an admissions program remains flexible, like the law school’s, so that all applicants are evaluated regarding their unique contributions to diversity.

As a result of Grutter, race may be considered in university admissions programs. Grutter may also have implications for K–12 admissions programs and for employment decisions because it offers strong language in support of the consideration of race in other contexts. To illustrate, it is arguable that student body diversity may also be considered a compelling state interest at the K–12 level. In Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District (2007), the Supreme Court struck down race-based admissions programs from Seattle and Louisville. The Court explained that the programs were unacceptable because school officials not only failed to demonstrate that the use of racial classifications in their student assignment plans was necessary to achieve their stated goal of racial diversity but also failed to consider alternative approaches adequately.

As policy, race-conscious plans have been extremely controversial. Some observers believe that such plans equate to reverse discrimination: that by giving admissions preference to members of the minority group, universities are, in fact, discriminating against Caucasian males. Others argue that race-conscious plans are at their core meant to prevent new discrimination or to eliminate the negative effects of past or ongoing discrimination. The debate over race-conscious admissions will certainly continue for years to come.

Suzanne E. Eckes

See also Affirmative Action; DeFunis v. Odegaard; Equal Protection Analysis; Fourteenth Amendment; Gratz v. Bollinger; Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District; Regents of the University of California v. Bakke

Further Readings

  • Eckes, S. (2004). Race-conscious admissions programs: Where do universities go from Grutter and Gratz? Journal of Law and Education, 33, 21–62. 

Legal Citations

  • Gratz v. Bollinger, 529 U.S. 244 (2003). 
  • Grutter v. Bollinger, 137 F. Supp.2d 821 (E.D. Mich. 2001); 288 F.3d 732 (6th Cir. 2002); 539 U.S. 306 (2003). 
  • Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, 426 F.3d 1162 (9th Cir. 2005), cert. granted, 126 S. Ct. 2351 (2006), rev’d, 127 S. Ct. 2738 (2007).