As Britain debates how to get more working-class and state school students into universities, the future of affirmative action in American education hangs in the balance. The University of Michigan's admissions policies are being evaluated by the US Supreme Court. The university was sued in 1997 by two white applicants, Barbara Grutter and Jennifer Gratz, who claimed they were denied places in favour of less qualified minority applicants. Grutter had applied to the graduate law school, Gratz to the undergraduate college of literature, science and the arts. They sued separately, but the Supreme Court has decided to hear the arguments in both cases simultaneously.
It is the first such Supreme Court case since Regents of the University of California v Bakke in 1978. The court then outlawed the use of racial quotas but upheld the use of race-conscious admissions policies. The question in the Michigan case is whether the university has a quota system that masquerades as affirmative action. This allows admissions policies to be tailored to help minority applicants but does not make race a determining factor.
For undergraduate courses in literature, science and the arts, Michigan uses a selection index, which gives candidates up to 150 points. A maximum of 110 may be awarded for academic achievement and up to 40 for other factors, which include where the applicant lives, his or her record of leadership and community service, and the quality of a personal essay. Twenty of these 40 points may be awarded to applicants from underrepresented racial or ethnic minority groups.
The graduate law school also takes race into consideration, but on a more personal basis, because it has a smaller applicant pool. Applicants are evaluated on their undergraduate work, Law School Admission Test (LSAT) results, a questionnaire about academic honours, community service, hobbies and previous employment, and a personal statement.
So the university can argue that it has no places reserved specifically for minority students; but it cannot deny that the admissions process is ultimately a game of numbers fixed so that minority students have an innate advantage. Michigan argues that its policies have been successful and that, with a quarter of its undergraduates coming from US minorities, it has a higher level of ethnic diversity than many other universities in America. If forced to abandon its present system, the university says, it cannot achieve the same level of diversity. It refuses to consider alternatives.
But other states argue that it is possible to achieve racial diversity without being accused of unconstitutional bias against whites. Texas, California and Florida have all adopted what are known as "per cent plans".
Although the details vary from state to state, the essence of the plans is that they guarantee admission to a state university - and sometimes to whichever one the student prefers - to a fixed percentage of those graduating from each high school. Since their adoption, these schemes have been successful in raising minority student admissions at universities.
But are they really a satisfactory replacement for affirmative action? Officials in the states that have used the plans admit that they evaluate students almost exclusively by academic standards - those with the highest scores in each school get to university - and fail to consider the wide range of students' achievements and extracurricular abilities. Moreover, the per cent plans, argue Michigan's officials, work only in states where school systems are racially segregated. Where some schools are predominantly black, Asian, Hispanic or Native American, some minority students will get into university by virtue of being top of the class. But the state of Michigan has few such schools.
The Supreme Court will announce its decision in June. The growing belief among lawyers is that it will find against Michigan's admissions policies. Either way, the decision will set a national precedent, and all US universities will have to follow whatever guidelines the court lays down. No doubt Britain, as we try to increase both working-class and ethnic-minority entry to universities, will watch events closely.