Affirmative Action Is Key to Diversity, Admissions Officers Say

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Without affirmative action, even the most valiant efforts of admissions officers will not keep many colleges and universities from losing much of their Hispanic and black populations, educators who gathered here at the College Board's annual meeting concluded last week.

Responding to recent challenges to the use of racial preferences in college admissions in states such as California and Texas, several educators described their efforts to maintain campus diversity without affirmative action.

One university being watched closely is the University of California, where regents repealed the use of racial preferences in admissions. The Berkeley campus adopted a new admissions policy that attempts to offset the effects of the regents' decision, but officials fear that it will not go far enough.

"At Berkeley, we can now anticipate that the difference between the [racial and ethnic] composition of our student body and the state of California will be vast," Pat Hayashi, the associate vice chancellor at UCB, said at a meeting session.

When deciding which students will be admitted to next year's freshman class, Berkeley's admissions officers will now read applications and essays two times, and consider what a student has done to overcome the obstacles he or she may have experienced, in addition to examining test scores and grade-point averages, Mr. Hayashi said.

But even after devoting more resources to the new admissions policy, university officials expect that the number of non-Asian-American minority students in next year's incoming class could fall by at least 50 percent.

"Our class will be diverse in all aspects except one--race," Mr. Hayashi said, predicting that black, Hispanic, and American Indian enrollments will drop.

Kenneth Millett, a mathematics professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, called for leadership from the College Board, the New York City-based organization that administers the SAT and Advanced Placement examinations.

To demonstrate its commitment to equity in access to postsecondary education, the board needs to devise "a richer, more 'whole person' way to help determine a student's admission to university," said Mr. Millett, one of the roughly 2,000 participants in the annual forum.

In another session, public university officials in Texas described their struggle to keep the state's campuses diverse in the wake of a federal appeals court decision that limits the use of race as a factor in all aspects of the admissions process.

Among other restrictions, the Texas v. Hopwood ruling prohibits race-based scholarships, which have historically encouraged the matriculation of minority students. Financial-aid officers at the University of Texas at Austin responded by adopting a race-blind system by which they give scholarships to high-achieving students who have overcome adversity.

The university now considers factors such as a family income, highest educational level attained by parents, and a student's SAT scores in comparison with the average SAT scores in his or her high school. In its first year, the program successfully awarded scholarships to a racially and ethnically varied group of students, said Lawrence W. Burt, the financial-aid director at the university

"Basically, this is a lab,'' said Bruce Walker, the director of admissions at the university. "We're experimenting, trying to learn the best way" to attract minority students.

But Texas officials say that even effective race-neutral programs such as these do not offset the number of minority students they have lost with the end of affirmative action in the state.

In related news, the College Board unveiled the initial plans of a recently created task force seeking to promote high academic achievement among minority students.

In the course of the next year, the task force will examine why many non-Asian-American minority students perform at lower levels than their Asian-American and white peers. The task force also plans to call greater attention to the problem and identify possible solutions, said Edmund W. Gordon, who co-chairs the task force.

"Some of us think there may be a pending national human resources crisis" if the country does not work to make its pool of high-achieving students more diverse, Mr. Gordon said.

In town to celebrate her 50th birthday, Illinois native Hillary Rodham Clinton used her address at the forum's closing session as an opportunity to plug her husband's proposed voluntary national tests in reading and math.

"There is no perfect family that raises perfect children, even if they get perfect scores on the SATs," Mrs. Clinton said. "So how do we create more conditions so that more parents understand how important education is?"

The first lady went on to say that the tests President Clinton and congressional lawmakers are now wrangling over would serve as a way to let the average citizen know "where we're headed together." ("Latest Testing Compromise Appears Doomed," in This Week's News.)

College Board President Donald M. Stewart presented Mrs. Clinton with the College Board Medal for Distinguished Service to Education, a distinction awarded to people who have worked to improve education.

--JESSICA L. SANDHAM [email protected]

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