Street Law, Inc. and The Supreme Court Historical Society present

Landmark Cases of the U.S. Supreme Court

Street Law /

Background Summary & Questions (••)

Beginning in the early 1970s, the medical school of the University of California at Davis used a two-part admissions program for the 100 students entering each year: a regular admissions program and a special admissions program. The purpose of the special program was to try to increase the number of minority and "disadvantaged" students in the class, so the 16 spots in the special admissions program were reserved for "qualified" minority and disadvantaged students.

Under the regular admissions program, if a candidate had an overall undergraduate grade point average below 2.5 on a scale of 4.0, the candidate was automatically rejected. Candidates who were not automatically rejected were evaluated using other criteria such as math and science grades, Medical College Admissions Test scores, letters of recommendation, and an interview.

On the application form, candidates could indicate that they wanted to be considered economically and/or educationally disadvantaged or members of a minority group. Applications of those who did so were sent to the special admissions program where a separate committee evaluated them.  This committee was composed mainly of members of minority groups.  The applicants in the special admissions program did not have to meet the same standards as the regular candidates, including the 2.5 grade point average cut off.

From 1971 to 1974 the special program resulted in the admission of 21 black students, 30 Mexican Americans, and 12 Asians, for a total of 63 minority students.* During the same period, the regular admissions program admitted 1 black student, 6 Mexican Americans, and 37 Asians, for a total of 44 minority students. No disadvantaged white candidates received admission through the special program.

Allan Bakke was a white male who applied to and was rejected from the regular admissions program in 1973 and 1974. During those years, applicants with lower scores were admitted under the special program. After his second rejection, Bakke filed suit in the Superior Court of Yolo County, California. He claimed that the special admissions program violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because it excluded him on the basis of race. He wanted the Court to force the University of California at Davis to admit him to the medical school.

The university argued that their system of admission preferences served several important purposes.  It helped counter the effects of discrimination in society.  Since historically, minors were discriminated against in medical school admissions and in the medical profession, their special admission program could help reverse that.   The university also said that the special program increased the number of physicians who practice in underserved communities.  Finally, the university reasoned that there are educational benefits to all students when the student body is ethnically and racially diverse. 

The Superior Court of Yolo County, California and the Supreme Court of California both found that the special admissions program violated the federal and state constitutions, as well as Title VI, and was therefore illegal. The Superior Court declared that race could not be taken into account when making admissions decisions but also ruled that Bakke should not be admitted to the medical school because he failed to show that he would have been admitted even without the special admissions program. The Supreme Court of California, however, determined that Bakke should be admitted to the school.

The Regents of the University of California then appealed the case to the Supreme Court of the United States.

*Note: These were the racial classifications used by the University of California at Davis at the time.

Questions to Consider
  1. Why would a college or university want to consider race as a factor in the admissions process? Do you think it is appropriate for a college or university to do so? Why or why not?
  2. Both the California Superior and California Supreme Courts agreed on what two facts in their Bakke rulings? 
  3. Do you agree with the lower courts' decisions? Why or why not?
< Regents of the University of California v. Bakke