College Admissions Officials Make Their Case for Diversity

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Orlando, Fla.

Frustration over inequities in higher education dominated the annual College Board conference, as educators and administrators debated strategies to ensure fair admissions procedures and financial-aid processes.

The conference, held here Oct. 30- Nov. 4, drew about 1,000 attendees interested in college access and the future of minority students. Sessions were also held on reforming curricula and using technology.

Keynote speakers William G. Bowen, the president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in New York City, and Derek Bok, a law professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, presented findings from their recent book on racial preferences, The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions.

If race-neutral admissions policies are mandated, the number of minority students will decline by half at most higher education institutions, Mr. Bowen said, adding that the impact would be even greater in graduate schools.

"Let no one believe that these debates are without consequences," said Mr. Bowen, a former president of Princeton University. "This is a debate with enormous consequences."

After studying 60,000 students at 28 selective public and private colleges and universities, the authors found that students greatly appreciate and learn from a diverse student body. Moreover, educated minority students contribute significantly to society after school, joining civic groups in greater numbers than whites, Mr. Bowen said.

Given that information, college admissions officers should take race into account, Mr. Bowen argued. Even if a minority student has a somewhat lower test score than a white student, he or she may contribute to the college in significant ways, he said.

Hugh B. Price

Hugh B. Price, the president of the National Urban League, a New York City-based nonprofit organization concerned with civil rights, also made that point during another keynote address.

"Many attributes contribute to life success, not the least of which is how hard you work, how you stay on the course, and what kind of drive you have," Mr. Price said.

"Colleges and universities must fight to preserve their right to place bets on surefire Phi Beta Kappas ... and on late-bloomers of all complexions," he added. "Full inclusion is too vital to America's future to be left entirely to chance, and tokenism is no longer an option for the most economically powerful, robustly diverse, and mutually dependent society in the history of humankind."

Mr. Price also advocated nurturing a youth culture that strives for academic success and a consumer demand for high-quality schools. Classrooms need to be downsized, programs for at-risk students expanded, and higher education made a priority, he said.

One of the hottest sessions of the conference was on the fallout from Proposition 209, the 1996 California ballot initiative that banned most race and gender preferences in public school admissions and government hiring and contracting. A similar law was approved by voters Nov. 3 in Washington state.

Proposition 209 forced a 51 percent drop in the admission of black, American Indian, and Hispanic students at the University of California, Berkeley, this fall despite a 10 percent increase in applications, university officials said. Only 11 percent of this year's freshman class is made up of minority students, while the state's K-12 system is 51 percent minority.

Choosing a class of 8,450 from a pool of 30,046 applicants was especially difficult because all of the records submitted were stellar, said Bob Laird, the director of undergraduate admissions at Berkeley.

Still, hundreds of qualified minority students who could have provided much-needed diversity were denied admission because race could not be considered, Mr. Laird said. Instead, the admissions officers relied on subjective factors, including "intellectual distinctiveness," to decide whom to admit.

"There is no substitution for looking at race and ethnic background if the goal is to increase the number of underrepresented students," said Rae Lee Siporin, the director of undergraduate admissions at the University of California Los Angeles, another top state school.

In other sessions, educators here discussed equity in student financial aid.

Merit-based aid and grants for the very poor are on the rise, officials said, but many middle-class families can't afford the cost of college, and many don't understand how the complicated financial-aid process works.

"There is an incredible frustration with the complexity of the process," said Jacqueline King, the director of federal-policy analysis for the American Council on Education, a Washington umbrella organization representing higher education groups and institutions.

--JULIE BLAIR [email protected]

Vol. 18, Issue 11, Page 10

Published in Print: November 11, 1998, as College Admissions Officials Make Their Case for Diversity
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