A U.S. Supreme Court case testing affirmative action in college admissions may have little impact on Washington, no matter which way it is decided.

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For the past four years, Washington State University has been on a focused mission to boost the number of its minority applicants.

It has chartered buses to bring students from diverse Western Washington schools to its Pullman campus, and created Spanish-language radio shows to discuss the merits of higher education.

The upshot?

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This year’s freshman class at Pullman has its highest percentage of Hispanic and black students ever — numbers that closely mirror the percentage of minorities among high-school graduates statewide.

“We’ve been successful regardless, even without affirmative action,” said Sol Jensen, executive director of enrollment at WSU.

Not so at the more selective University of Washington, which accepts a smaller percentage of its applicants than WSU and requires a higher grade-point average.

The UW also does a variety of outreach efforts, but its rate of Hispanic and black freshmen falls short of the statewide rates.

“I feel like I have one hand tied behind my back,” said Philip Ballinger, UW admissions director. “We could do an even better job if we were permitted to use it (race).”

On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case called Fisher v. Texas, involving a white student who alleged racial discrimination after she was denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin.

Whether the court upholds affirmative action in college admissions or strikes it down is unlikely to have any effect in Washington. That’s because voters in 1998 approved Initiative 200, which barred governments from considering race and gender in everything from hiring to public college admissions.

Immediately after I-200 passed, many minority applicants were scared away by the new policy, but the numbers soon recovered. Some national groups that oppose affirmative action say Washington is an example of why the policy is no longer needed.

Still, in Washington’s most-selective public university, the acceptance rate for some minorities has hardly changed in 14 years.

This fall only about 2.8 percent of the UW’s freshman class is African American, even though blacks make up about 5 percent of the high-school graduating class in Washington state.

And only 6.7 percent of the UW freshman class is Hispanic/Latino, although Hispanic students make up about 12 percent of the high-school graduating class and are the fastest-growing minority group in Washington — and the U.S.

Ballinger said the UW aims to create a diverse campus because the school believes diversity makes for a better university.

But with race and ethnicity removed from the application process, the UW has had to look for other ways to achieve diversity.

Various factors

So it takes into account socioeconomic factors — such as whether the student’s high school had a high poverty rate. “When you’re disallowed from using race, but still seeking diversity for educational purposes, you’re forced to use less finely tuned tools,” Ballinger said.

Ballinger thinks the UW is less able to compete with some private and out-of-state schools because of I-200. He thinks the university may be forced to bypass talented middle-class black and Hispanic students, who then leave the state or go to private school.

WSU, which also is colorblind in its admissions process, has a freshman class this fall that is 4 percent black, and 12 percent Hispanic/Latino, Jensen said.

It’s boosted its numbers through a variety of initiatives, including holding bilingual panels about admissions for parents who don’t speak English.

“Once you gain this momentum, it just further continues that cycle,” Jensen said.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @katherinelong.

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