Like thousands of high school seniors in 1995, Jennifer Gratz opened her mailbox one day and found a rejection letter from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
With a 3.8 grade-point average and an ACT admission test score in the top 20% of test-takers, Gratz, who is white, blamed her rejection on the university's policy that gives minorities extra points in the formula it uses to select its students.
"The fact is, the University of Michigan discriminates against people based on skin color," she said.
Gratz registered her disappointment in a big way -- by suing the university. Her case, and another involving a white applicant rejected by the University of Michigan Law School, are scheduled to be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday. The cases mark the high court's first review of affirmative action in university admissions since the 1978 Bakke decision, which outlawed racial quotas but upheld the use of race as a "plus factor" in admissions to achieve diversity.
That decision, based on the complaint of Allan Bakke, an applicant to the UC Davis Medical School, kept the affirmative action debate smoldering. Universities reluctantly compromised by dropping quotas and adopting admissions policies like Michigan's. Those who believe that race and ethnicity should not hold any sway in admission decisions remained aggrieved.
In the decades following the Bakke decision, competition heated up for places at prestigious universities, and so did the debate over affirmative action. States with prestigious public universities, such as California, saw tensions over affirmative action boil over in the 1990s as slots at top campuses became "super-glittering prizes," said Nicholas Lemann, author of "The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy," a study of the SAT and affirmative action.
"For a long time, nothing happened because it wasn't that hard to get into any of these schools," he said.
The Washington-based Center for Individual Rights, which represents the plaintiffs, made two arguments in its challenge to the Michigan policy. It argued the Bakke ruling has been implicitly overturned by more recent high court decisions and that, even if schools can use race as a "plus factor," Michigan officials go too far.
University officials say their affirmative action policy is needed to ensure diversity. The number of minority students would plummet without race-based admissions, they contend.
If the court strikes down Michigan's use of race in admissions, private universities could be affected as well. Because those schools receive federal funds, they are subject to antidiscrimination standards set by the Supreme Court. Dozens of corporations and military leaders, including three former chairmen of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, have also filed briefs supporting the university's affirmative action plan.
The high court is revisiting affirmative action when anxiety over college admissions appears to be at an all-time high. In the last decade especially, pressure has mounted with the proliferation of early applications to Ivy League schools and prep courses for the SAT, as well as the hiring of highly paid private counselors to coach students on admissions.
Many educators believe the current challenges to affirmative action are fueled by a growing fear among middle-class and affluent Americans that failing to attend an elite university will cut off roads to wealth and professional success. Gratz, the daughter of a police officer and a secretary who grew up in a mostly white, working-class Detroit suburb, said her childhood dream of becoming a doctor was tied to her plans to study at Ann Arbor. "I lost confidence in myself because of that letter.... One of the things that changed was that I gave up medicine as a career opportunity," she said of her rejection.
Gratz attended the Dearborn campus of the University of Michigan, where she earned a math degree. She now lives in Oceanside and works as a software trainer for a vending machine company.
"Obviously, today, at 25, I realize I was crazy," Gratz said of being so distraught over her rejection, "but I was 17 and the University of Michigan [at Ann Arbor] was my dream."
Julie Peterson, a spokeswoman for the Ann Arbor campus, said Gratz could have been admitted, but she did not reply to an offer to be placed on the school's waiting list. Every Michigan resident placed on the waiting list that year was eventually offered a place in the freshman class, Peterson said.
Peterson said Gratz also did not apply to transfer to Ann Arbor, which might have presented another option.
When Gratz was a freshman at Dearborn, she read a newspaper article that detailed the University of Michigan's system of racial preferences. The article mentioned a state legislator was seeking names to forward to the Center for Individual Rights, which was planning a lawsuit.
Gratz volunteered, and was picked by the center to be a lead plaintiff, along with another white student, Patrick Hamacher, who had a 3.4 high school grade-point average and scored in the 89th percentile on his ACT exam but was turned down by Ann Arbor in 1996.
The lead plaintiff in the other case before the court, Barbara Grutter, was rejected from the University of Michigan Law School in 1996. Grutter had graduated from Michigan State University, where she majored in crop and soil science and earned a 3.8 grade-point average. Her LSAT score of 161 was in the 86th percentile, she said.
Grutter was 43 and had her own health-care information technology business when she applied to law school. Grutter said the women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s "made significant progress for ourselves and our daughters. Now, 30 years later, we are discriminated against on yet another basis -- this time race."
Curt Levey, a lawyer with the Center for Individual Rights, said one reason the three were picked was that all had been on the university's waiting list. That fact, he said, makes it "easy to show they would have gotten in had they been black, Hispanic or Native American."
Those who have studied admission rates agree that if applicants such as Gratz, Hamacher and Grutter could somehow change their skin color they likely would be admitted. But these researchers say singling out affirmative action as the reason for their rejection may be going too far.
Goodwin Liu, a Washington lawyer whose research on affirmative action was cited in the lower courts' consideration of the Michigan cases, contends that because the total number of minorities admitted to selective schools is relatively small, few whites lose places to those admitted under affirmative action.
Affirmative action gives minorities a much greater chance of admission, but "it defies basic arithmetic" to suggest preferences for minorities substantially harm white applicants, Liu said.