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Replacing Race-Conscious Admissions Policies

Replacing Race-Conscious Admissions Policies
Are percentage plans the wave of the future?
By Kendra Hamilton

When President George W. Bush denounced the University of Michigan for maintaining a “quota” system for undergraduate and law admissions that was “divisive, unfair and impossible to square with the Constitution,” he clearly signaled his desire that the U.S. Supreme Court “end, not mend” affirmative action.

But if the high court does opt to close the book on affirmative action when it considers two lawsuits involving Michigan admissions policies on April 1, a critical question remains: Is there anything to replace this much-criticized policy?

The answer, say key higher education analysts, policy watchdog groups as well as a raft of newly minted studies, appears to be: not at present.

So-called percentage plans have been touted as the wave of the future in diversifying college populations partly because they are popular with Whites and conservatives and partly because court challenges have led to their being adopted in three of the nation’s most populous states: Texas in 1998, California in 1999 and Florida in 2000. Indeed, the Bush administration made sweeping claims about their virtues in its “friend of the court” brief filed with the Supreme Court last month.

But if the current administration is looking for a race-neutral policy, notes Dr. Bridget Long, assistant professor in Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, percentage plans are a problematic choice. “The only way they can work in practice is if the high schools are segregated in ways that we’ve said over and over again that we’re committed to ending,” she says.

More importantly, the evidence is mounting that the plans simply don’t work.

That case is made in three recently released studies — separate analyses of the Texas “10 Percent Plan,” the Florida “Talented 20” program plus a comparison of the three percentage plans.

The first study, led by Princeton University’s Dr. Marta Tienda, charges that “the ban on affirmative action had a chilling effect on the enrollment of minority students admitted to the public flagships, especially at (Texas) A&M University.

“Although Texas is rapidly becoming a ‘majority minority state,’ the demographic profiles of the two public flagships”— University of Texas-Austin and Texas A&M University — “has failed to keep pace with the growth of minority groups among college-age students,” according to the study “Closing the Gap?: Texas College Enrollments Before and After Affirmative Action.”

The findings in “Appearance and Reality in the Sunshine State: The Talented 20 Program in Florida,” released by Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project, are even more startling.

In contrast to Gov. Jeb Bush’s claims that Talented 20 had “solved” the affirmative action “problem” in Florida, Dr. Gary Orfield, professor of education and social policy at Harvard and co-director of the Civil Rights Project, writes, “there is simply no basis for the claim.”

Noting a “striking disconnect between claims and data,” Orfield called the plan “virtually irrelevant” as most of the students who went to college under the program would have gone anyway.

As for the tri-state report, Dr. Carol L. Horn, its co-author and a research associate at the Civil Rights Project, says that the “plans are clearly not effective substitutes for race-conscious admissions policies.

“They cannot be applied at national universities, private universities, or graduate and professional school programs, and they simply do not yield the levels of diversity that race-conscious admissions policies produce,” Horn concludes.

Indeed, while percentage plans have been hailed as major alternatives to race-conscious affirmative action, the research reveals them to be riddled with problems and inefficiencies. The gains provided under them are, in fact, so modest that they require a variety of outreach, recruitment, financial aid and other support programs to maintain even moderate levels of diversity.

Long, meanwhile, is concerned about something that none of the current crop of studies have yet addressed: the problems of student retention or “persistence.”

Under the percentage plans, she explains, “there are huge persistence issues even if you have an initial class that’s very diverse.

“The students of color are all from urban schools that don’t have the resources, don’t have the teachers, while the White students are all from top suburban or private schools. So, in effect, you’re creating a dynamic in which all the Black kids are poor, from bad schools, need remediation and will likely flunk out if they don’t get it; meanwhile, the White kids, who with great high school experiences for the most part, are all staying,” Long says.

But “that’s not just a problem with percentage plans — that’s a problem with affirmative action generally,” notes Dr. Bruce Walker, associate vice president for academic affairs and director of admissions at UT-Austin.

“We have, however, found that ‘top 10′ students perform better once they get to college than high-scoring, high SAT students. They produce GPAs that are higher than students with 200 to 300 more points on the SATs,” Walker says. “So rank is important. It’s come to have a specific and a political meaning that is fraught with a lot of baggage. But the naked truth is that top 10 percent students are top performers.”

As the deadline for filing amicus curiae briefs with the Supreme Court looms, however, it seems clear that the stakes are high and may involve no less than the potential re-segregation of the nation’s public schools.

“The important lesson,” says Princeton’s Tienda, “is the lesson we learned in 1978. If we want to diversify our institutions of higher education, if we want the public flagships to play a role in creating a community of leaders among all segments of the population, then for the time being — when we have very egregious inequities in access — it is necessary to take race into account.

“This is not a position I held before I began doing research on the problem. I felt that affirmative action had played itself out,” Tienda says. “Once I began doing the research, my opinion changed completely because the facts do not justify the conclusion of a color-blind policy at this point.”

Walker adds, “I don’t think we have any evidence that (percentage plans are) a national solution. Here, we have a lot of data for UT-Austin, about the students enrolled and their experiences, but this isn’t even all of Texas. I don’t think we know enough in, pick a state — Indiana, Michigan, Illinois — to say that percentage plans are a solution for those states.”

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