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Originally published June 27, 2013 at 4:44 PM | Page modified June 28, 2013 at 1:31 PM

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Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action could signal change in Washington state

Lynne K. Varner asks: Can Washington state take to heart the Supreme Court’s validation of diversity in higher education without returning to some version of affirmative action?

Times editorial columnist

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The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on the use of race in higher-education admissions policies was a confusing, halfhearted endorsement of affirmative action.

Washington state residents may be tempted to greet the news with a collective shrug since affirmative action has been illegal here for about 15 years. But that would be a mistake.

The court’s 7-1 decision in Fisher v. University of Texas , Austin leaves intact a 2003 ruling allowing race to be one factor in college admissions decisions as long as it is not the determining factor.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, affirmed the educational value of diverse campuses, but noted that race should be used only after “available, workable race-neutral alternatives do not suffice.”

That would be race-neutral alternatives like the kind Washington’s colleges and universities have been forced to rely on since the 1998 passage of Initiative 200. The high court is clearly foreshadowing a shift in the political winds swirling around affirmative action. Which direction the winds are changing is something this state ought to be asking. The answer determines if we’re ahead of the curve, or behind it.

For starters, can Washington state take to heart the court’s validation of diversity as a critical national interest without returning to some version of affirmative action?

Our public education institutions have become more diverse in part by stepping up intense but colorblind recruiting efforts and partly because Washington’s relatively homogeneous school population is growing more diverse.

Since the 2000 census, the number of Hispanics in the state has increased by 71.2 percent; the increase was 48.9 percent for Asians, and 40.6 percent for those who identify as multiracial.

Washington state’s public high schools have had increasingly diverse graduating classes. Nonwhite high-school graduates are expected to increase from 27 percent of the total number of graduates in 2008-09, to 35 percent by 2019-20, and then 42 percent by 2027-28, according to statistics compiled by Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

The result is a more diverse college-going population. Washington State University has had freshman classes with percentages of Hispanic and black students that mirror the percentage of minorities among high-school graduates.

Higher-education institutions stepped up with money and other resources to maintain this deep commitment to diversity on campus. Old-fashioned recruiting efforts that included going to schools to help students imagine becoming a Coug or a Husky evolved into real conversations about the life-changing potential of college. For students who would be the first in their families to go to college, it often means explaining what a major is.

Simple outreach can produce powerful results. Take the state’s College Bound program that has signed up 147,000 seventh- and eighth-graders who promise to stay out of trouble and graduate from high school in exchange for a college education.

That’s not only huge in helping to diversify college campuses but also in opening up college participation across racial and economic lines. Let’s not forget that Washington ranks near the bottom in terms of the number of homegrown high-school students who go onto college.

Without the ability to consider the impact of racial discrimination on student achievement, college admissions officers in Washington shifted to holistic reviews that assess everything from rigorous courses taken in high school to challenges in a student’s personal life. That’s a smart shift away from reliance just on test scores.

Maybe the Supreme Court is moving the rest of the country to where Washington state already is. Or maybe the court’s middle-of-the-road approach ought to signal an opportunity for this state to re-evaluate its hostility to even the barest consideration of race.

It begs the question of whether Washington is harming itself by taking a more strict approach than the rest of the country to achieving diversity.

A decade and a half later, I don’t hear people talk about affirmative action that much. The court’s ruling could signal a change.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is lvarner@seattletimes.com Follow her on Twitter @lkvarner

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