Gratz v. Bollinger is a landmark 2003 judgment of U.S. Supreme Court that together with its companion case, Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), defines the circumstances under which officials at colleges and universities may consider race in making admissions decisions. On the one hand, in Grutter the Court ruled that achieving the educational benefits of a diverse student body is a compelling governmental interest and articulated a multifactored standard for determining narrow tailoring. On the other hand, in Gratz the Court found that the use of race in a university’s undergraduate admissions was not narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling governmental interest. This entry reviews the Court’s analysis in Gratz in some detail.
Facts of the Case
Gratz arose out of a challenge to the University of Michigan’s undergraduate admissions policies. Unlike the University of Michigan Law School admissions policy, which was addressed in Grutter and called for all applicants to be evaluated individually, officials in the undergraduate college used a point system based on such criteria as test scores, grades, recommendations, and activities. Under this system, applicants had to accumulate 100 points in order to guarantee admission. Applicants who were members of designated minority groups were automatically given 20 points simply because of their race. As a practical matter, this meant that members of the minority groups had to accumulate only 80 points under the other criteria, while nonminority applicants had to accumulate 100 points from those sources. After a federal trial court in Michigan partially granted a motion for summary judgment entered on behalf of students who challenged the admissions policy, and while an appeal was pending at the Sixth Circuit, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Gratz in light of its having already having accepted a challenge to the outcome in Grutter.
The Supreme Court’s Ruling
The Supreme Court, in a six-to-three judgment written by Chief Justice Rehnquist, reasoned that because the university’s admissions policy was not narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling governmental interest, it was unconstitutional. In reaching its judgment, the Court made three key points. First, the Court explained that such a bureaucratic approach was inconsistent with individualized consideration, because the potential for each applicant to contribute to diversity had to be judged on a case-by-case basis. To this end, the Court noted that one cannot assume that individuals will contribute to diversity simply because of their races.
Second, the Supreme Court pointed out that the educational benefits of diversity must encompass more than simple racial diversity. The Court maintained that because other characteristics may well give applicants unique perspectives that constitute contributions to diversity, officials had to take these into consideration.
Third, the Court indicated that administrative convenience did not justify the bureaucratic application of race. More specifically, the Court wrote that if officials intend to rely on race as an admissions criterion, then they must read each application. It almost goes without saying that this point has enormous practical consequences for large institutions or officials in highly competitive colleges and universities that receive thousands of applications.
Justice O’Connor, the author of the majority opinion in Grutter, penned a short concurrence. She emphasized the differences between the unconstitutional policy for undergraduate admissions in Gratz and the constitutional approach that the law school used in making admissions decisions in Grutter.
Justice Stevens, joined by Justice Souter, dissented. He asserted that the plaintiffs lacked standing because they enrolled in other schools after being rejected by the University of Michigan. Justice Souter filed a dissent in which Justice Ginsburg joined in part, arguing that Gratz should have been rejected because the plaintiffs never raised the narrow tailoring issue in the lower courts. He also was of the view that the admissions policy was sufficiently narrowly tailored. Justice Ginsburg filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Souter joined and Justice Breyer joined in part. This dissent declared that classifications designed to help racial minorities should have been subjected to a lesser degree of scrutiny.
Impact of Gratz
Gratz rejects the notion that officials at colleges and universities may use bureaucratic rather than individualized approaches, emphatically rejecting the idea of separate admissions tracks for racial minorities and automatic assumptions about what racial minorities might contribute. Instead, the Court focused on the importance of considering each applicant as an individual, assessing all of the person’s qualities before reviewing the person’s ability to contribute to the unique setting of higher education. The Supreme Court added that just as growing up in a specific region or having particular professional experiences was likely to impact an applicant’s views, so too did the applicant’s unique experience as a member of a racial minority still matter. Of course, such examinations must include evaluations of other factors that may shape applicants’ attitudes and experiences, such as religion, cultural background, socioeconomic class, or home life. In other words, if applicants are to be judged on the experiences and attitudes that they would bring to the intellectual life of institutions, then their races, like any other factor that shapes attitudes and experiences, becomes relevant.
Put another way, while Gratz rejects the direct consideration of race, it embraces the indirect consideration of race, a subtle but crucial distinction. This represents the difference between judging individuals on the content of their character and conferring benefits based on their skin color. It is the difference between individual consideration and group rights, the difference between the holistic evaluation of all aspects of applications that the Supreme Court called for in Grutter and a bureaucratic sorting of applications into various categories. Further, this is the difference between an objective detailed examination of what applicants can contribute to the intellectual life of institutions and stereotypical assumptions. Most important from the perspective of education policy makers, this is the difference between an admissions process being upheld as constitutional as in Grutter and being invalidated as in Gratz.
See also affirmative action; equal protection analysis; Regents of the University of California v. Bakke; U.S. Supreme Court Cases in Higher Education
Jenkins, J. K. (2004). Grutter, diversity, & K–12 public schools. Education Law. Reporter, 182, 353–370.
Mawdsley, R. D., & Russo, C. J. (2003). Supreme Court dissenting opinions in Grutter: Has the majority created a nation divided against itself? Education Law Reporter, 180, 417–435.
Meers, E. B., & Thro, W. E. (2004). Race conscious admissions & financial aid after the University of Michigan decisions. Washington, DC: National Association of College and University Attorneys.
Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 (1978).
Thro, W. E. (2005). No direct consideration of race: The lessons of the University of Michigan decisions. Education Law Reporter, 196, 755–764.
Gratz v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 244 (2003).
Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003).