Seven months after Florida’s state colleges and universities ended race- and gender-based admission policies, the number of minority students entering the system this fall increased by 12 percent, according to higher education officials.
Gov. Jeb Bush’s plan to eliminate affirmative action and adopt a “Talented 20" program—in which the top 20 percent of graduating seniors from each state high school are guaranteed admission to one of the 10 state institutions—had sparked protests from some state lawmakers and national civil rights groups.(“Thousands Protest Fla. Plan To End Affirmative Action,” March 15, 2000.)
This fall’s entering class is the first to be admitted without affirmative action policies since 1978, when Florida put in place racial set-asides for college admissions. The Talented 20 policy is part of Gov. Bush’s “One Florida” initiative, which also ended the use of race and gender considerations in awarding government contracts.
Of the 3,202 new first-year college students entering the system whose race and ethnicity could be determined, nearly 40 percent were members of minority groups, according to figures released last month by Florida’s public universities and board of regents.
The number of African-American students grew by 33 percent at the University of Florida and by 21 percent at Florida State University. All 10 colleges in the state system increased their enrollment of black students.
The increased minority enrollment “debunks the myth that One Florida would result in fewer minority students going to Florida colleges and universities,” Gov. Bush, a Republican, said in a statement. “We have shown that we can promote both opportunity and diversity in higher education without using unfair and legally suspect racial preferences.”
But U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, a Florida Democrat who helped organize a rally of more than 8,000 to protest the governor’s initiative in March, said that African- American students too often attend high schools without the course offerings and opportunities afforded to whites.
While applauding the increases, she questioned the extent of the policy’s impact on enrollment this fall, because it was held up by administrative law hearings and not set in place until after many freshmen had been accepted.
Similar “percent plans” are being used in California and Texas, where officials also have sought alternatives to racial preferences in the wake of legal and political challenges.
A spur to such alternatives was the 1996 federal appeals court decision in Hopwood v. Texas, which held that using race as a criterion in admissions to state colleges was unconstitutional.
In California, where the University of California regents voted in 1995 to phase out affirmative action, students who graduate in the top 4 percent of their classes are granted automatic admission to public college and universities. In Texas, the same policy applies for students in the top 10 percent.
Both California and Texas saw an initial drop in minority enrollments, but have since rebounded and made modest gains.
Critics contend that percent plans do not help students because the quality of high schools often varies dramatically. Sending weak students off to a university before they are prepared is unfair, they say.
And for some opponents of race-conscious public policies, percent plans like Florida’s are still too tied to considerations such as race. “The plan raises similar problems [to affirmative action] because it was adopted with the idea of achieving a particular racial and ethnic mix,” said Roger Clegg, the general counsel for the Washington-based Center for Equal Opportunity. “Doing that is not only discriminatory, but raises other policy concerns.”
Mr. Clegg suggested that students in a low-performing school might decide they have a better chance of ranking in the top 20 percent of the class if they stay in that school rather than seeking a more competitive one.
But John Barnhill, the director of admissions at Florida State University in Tallahassee, said he believes that the percent plan has helped spur some students who otherwise might not have seriously considered college.
“There were probably students in that ‘talented 20' who didn’t think they were college material,” he said.
Thomas Kane, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard University, said the 12 percent gain in minority enrollments reported by Florida seemed more like “treading water than cause for celebration.” But, he continued, “the improvements at the University of Florida and Florida State University certainly exceed expectations and should be applauded, particularly if sustained.”