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Racial bias?

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The Supreme Court will rule on a case that may shape colleges’ affirmative action policies.

Many colleges seek a diverse student body that can include racial preferences and other factors in admissions decisions.

When Andrea Noel Fisher, a white student from Sugar Land, Texas, applied to the University of Texas in 2008, she was rejected despite a 3.59 grade point average and a decent combined SAT score.

Ms. Fisher, who recently graduated from Louisiana State University, claims that she was rejected unfairly by the University of Texas. She cites admission policies that give some advantage to students on the basis of race, leadership experience, socioeconomic status and other factors.

The university has cited its belief in “the educational benefits of diversity,” as expressed by its president, Bill Powers. The university’s attorney, Gregory S. Garre, told the court that race is “only one modest factor among many.”

But the court’s tough questions during an oral argument Wednesday are telling. “There has to be a logical endpoint to your use of race (in admissions),” Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. told the university’s attorney. “When is that endpoint?”

Justice Samuel Alito said that he did not understand what the university meant by its goal of enrolling a “critical mass” of minority students.

Justice Antonin Scalia asked: “What does the racial preference mean if it doesn’t mean that in that situation the minority applicant wins and the other applicant loses?”

The questions suggest the court harbors some doubts about the university’s policies, which are not unique to the University of Texas. The case could further define what is just, right and fair in college admissions. Yet colleges need to have the freedom to make choices in keeping with their vision.

The case raises some interesting questions.

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