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Colleges Prepare for Possible End to Affirmative Action

Colleges Prepare for Possible End to Affirmative Action
Interest in alternatives to race-conscious admissions high at Quality Education for Minorities conference
By Cheryl D. Fields


With the U.S. Supreme Court’s hearing of arguments in the University of Michigan’s affirmative action cases only weeks away, the tone of the annual Quality Education for Minorities (QEM) conference held here last month was one of resigned preparation for a ruling that could end the legal use of affirmative action at U.S. colleges and universities.

“This is a time for new approaches,” said Daniel W. Sutherland, chief of staff to the assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education. Sutherland and co-panelist Dr. Kevin Leicht, a professor of sociology at the University of Iowa, gave presentations on the variety and efficacy of race-neutral strategies currently in use around the country.

Interest in alternatives to affirmative action was high among this mostly African American audience of professionals working in the science, mathematics and engineering wings of postsecondary education. Even with affirmative action, Black students have been grossly underrepresented in these fields. If affirmative action is off the table, the situation has the potential to grow significantly worse.

Citing President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” campaign, Sutherland said the Department of Education is eager to identify new ways of extending educational opportunity to those who have historically had limited access. The class-rank approaches used in California, Florida and Texas, and socio-economic approaches that give poor students an edge in the admissions process, were presented as examples of alternatives that can be used by campus admissions officials. The jury is still out, however, on whether these approaches can yield significant numbers of African American students at the most selective institutions.

Leicht presented early findings from a Ford Foundation study assessing the influence of one class rank program on the enrollment of minority students. Texas’ Top 10 Percent plan was designed to offset damage done to diversity efforts at Texas’ public colleges and universities by the Hopwood decision. The plan guarantees high school seniors whose GPAs rank at the top of their class admission to the University of Texas. Among other findings, the study reveals that Asian students in Texas have benefited the most from the Top 10 Percent plan, while Black students have benefited the least. The study also shows that poor, rural Whites now have better access to the University of Texas than they did when affirmative action procedures were in place.

Admissions strategies such as these, however, are not the only approaches being tried, Sutherland said, pointing to a growing number of developmental approaches that aim to improve the preparation and competitiveness of students before they even apply to college. These include everything from GEAR UP and TRIO type programs, to partnerships between colleges and low-performing schools, and programs that aim to expand availability of Advanced Placement courses in high schools.

While none of these strategies has proven to be a panacea, when used in combination they can assist schools in pursuing their diversity goals, Sutherland said. More research and discussion are needed, however, to determine the varieties of programs that might be used in different settings.

Most of the race-neutral solutions discussed at the meeting target undergraduates. In response to questions about what is being done to ensure African American students better access to graduate and professional schools, an arena where they are woefully underrepresented, Sutherland said not much has come to his attention. Leicht added that some members of the Texas legislature are trying to devise a 10 percent plan that would guarantee high-achieving undergraduates admission to the state’s graduate and professional schools. The effort would target undergraduate colleges in the state where people of color are well represented, he said, but so far officials at the university are not terribly receptive to the idea.

Audience member Charisse Carney-Nunes, an attorney with the National Science Foundation, expressed frustration that even targeted outreach programs are now vulnerable to attacks from anti-affirmative action groups. Another participant wondered whether the unique barriers to admission facing African Americans could be effectively addressed by race-neutral solutions. How can socio-economic approaches, she asked, benefit Blacks when they are a minority even among the nation’s poor?

Rather than dwell on the shortcomings of existing programs, panel moderator Dr. Kenneth R. Manning, a professor of rhetoric and history of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, urged the group to view the current environment as one offering opportunity to achieve what previous efforts could not.

If there is any good that has come of the last decade of challenges to affirmative action, Leicht said, it is the triggering of more innovative thinking. “It has us thinking there are other ways of doing what we’re trying to do.”

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