Pennsylvania Toys With Guaranteed Admissions
HARRISBURG, Pa. — In an effort to boost minority enrollment, officials at the state university system here are considering guaranteeing admission to all students in Pennsylvania who graduate in the top 15 percent of their high school classes.
But the proposal comes on the heels of a report recently released by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, condemning such plans usually put in place as a substitute for affirmative action.
“Race-conscious affirmative action has not brought nearly enough Black and Latino students into undergraduate, graduate or professional higher education programs; the percentage plans will do no better and probably worse,” the report says.
Still, Pennsylvania could join anti-affirmative action states like Texas, California and Florida that already have adopted similar admissions policies, although Pennsylvania officials have not reported any plans to do away with affirmative action.
Some state officials insist the proposal could be helpful in recruiting minority students from inner-city schools, including those here, in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, because students would be elevated based on how they rank against their classmates, says Kenn Marshall, state university system spokesman.
“We are here to provide access and opportunity,” he says. “The advantage to using this system is that it decreases the value of using the SAT. There is a lot of argument against the SAT because it’s not reflective of what students have really learned because all students don’t do well on tests.”
“It would place more weight where I think it rightly belongs — on classroom performance,” says Dr. Mark Staszkiewicz, provost at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, the largest of the state system schools.
But other administrators within the 14-school, 95,000-student system say they’re not so sure the plan would do the trick. Some believe offering more scholarships is a better solution.
Currently, about 1 percent of the population gets Board of Governors scholarships, which are not race-based. It has been suggested that the cap be raised to 3 percent to allow more opportunity for minority students to benefit.
But many school officials say they have to see more details in the admissions plan before they’re convinced. They say most students attending state institutions already are in the top 15 percent of their high school graduating class.
“Prior to adopting this plan, I hope that the state system will produce data that shows that this is the most effective way to increase the enrollment of students of color,” says Patricia Hopson-Shelton, Millersville University of Pennsylvania’s assistant to the president for social equity.
System officials admit they have not yet analyzed the plan to see just how it would affect minority enrollment numbers.
“We really don’t know how much of an impact this would have,” Marshall says.
Fewer than 128,000 high school students graduate each year in Pennsylvania. Although minorities account for 12 percent of the state’s population, the state system has only an 8.5 percent minority enrollment.
“What we would like is to make our enrollment match the high school graduates,” Marshall says. “The numbers have steadily been increasing but it has been small. In the last five years the percentage [of minority enrollment in the system] has gone from about 7.5 to 8.5, and the current enrollment is an all-time high.”
The number of African American students has climbed to 5,839; Native Americans to 223; Asian Americans to 878; Latinos to 1,175; and nonresidents to 1,442. The percentage ranges from a low 4.3 percent at Slippery Rock to 11.1 percent at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. At Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, a historically Black institution in the state system, minority population is 94 percent.
The proposal doesn’t say whether students who make the cut would be allowed to attend the school of his choice or would have to go wherever there is room. Marshall says the plan might work similarly to the “Academic Passport” program, which guarantees that graduates of Pennsylvania community colleges may attend state system schools, though not necessarily the campuses or programs of their choice.
And many officials are complaining that the plan does not speak to ensuring that students of color, once admitted, will succeed in college.
“There is always the possibility that you let some students in who aren’t as well prepared,” he says. “We have some remedial programs designed to help students.
“The real goal here is to provide as many students with opportunity. If students perform well enough to be in the top 15 percent, they should be able to put forth effort,” he says.
Still others’ primary concern is that the plan might signal a defection from affirmative action. It seems Pennsylvania officials are following the path of Texas, California and now Florida, says Dr. Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C.
And, she adds, guaranteed admissions plans gloss over some fundamentals.
“In general I think these plans overlook the highly unequal resources of learning in various school systems,” she says. “Some schools’ top 15 percent have taken honor courses and advance placement, and in many others, the top 15 percent didn’t … They’re engaging in the pretense that the top 15 percent of one school is equal to the top 15 percent of another school.”
The plan could be presented to the board of governors at its July 13 meeting.
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