Law & Courts

Civil Rights Panel Criticizes College-Admissions Plans

By Julie Blair — April 19, 2000 3 min read

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights last week blasted the use of “percentage plans” that replace racial preferences in college admissions with guaranteed admission for all students who graduate near the top of their high school classes.

“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 commission argues in a 10-page statement.

The commission, an independent agency created by Congress, voted 6-2 earlier this month to approve the statement. Every Democratic commissioner voted in favor of it, while Russell G. Redenbaugh, an Independent, and Carl A. Anderson, a Republican, opposed it.

Mr. Redenbaugh charged that the Democrats on the commission had forced a vote on the issue without ample discussion, in part because they wanted to embarrass Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the presumptive GOP nominee for president, and his brother, Jeb, the governor of Florida, who is also a Republican. Both governors are strong advocates of percentage plans in their states.

“This is politically motivated,” Mr. Redenbaugh said in an interview.

At a press briefing last week, commission Chairwoman Mary Frances Berry denied that charge, adding that commissioners had had plenty of time to debate the merits of percentage plans.

The Civil Rights Commission serves as a watchdog on civil rights issues but has no policymaking or enforcement powers.

Priority on Class Rank

Percentage plans are currently in effect in two states. In California, students who graduate in the top 4 percent of their high school graduating classes are granted automatic admission to public colleges and universities; in Texas, those in the top 10 percent of their classes are given the same treatment at that state’s public institutions of higher education.

Both plans were adopted as alternatives to using racial preferences in college admissions.

In February, Florida’s state board of education approved a plan, called the One Florida Initiative, to admit the top 20 percent of high school graduates to public colleges, provided that students take a list of required 19 high school classes.

The policy’s implementation has been put on hold, however, pending the outcome of a legal challenge by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. (“Thousands Protest Fla. Plan To End Affirmative Action,” March 15, 2000.)

Proponents of such plans say they are more equitable than affirmative action policies because students are judged on their academic skills and effort rather than by the color of their skin. Some critics, though, argue that students from lesser-quality high schools—many of whom are members of minorities—are at a disadvantage when they enroll in college, even if they graduate at the top of their classes. Many are not prepared for the workload, those critics say.

Neither administrators in California or Texas say they can determine yet how the policies have affected minority students throughout their states. While minority enrollment at some schools has gone down, other institutions have seen their numbers increase.

Gov. Bush of Florida, a Republican, wrote in a letter to Ms. Berry this month that he was “fully confident that the One Florida Initiative will succeed in its aim to expand diversity of opportunity in Florida.”

“Through the use of innovative recruitment and admissions strategies, Florida State University has abandoned the use of race as a factor in admissions, and simultaneously expanded minority admission by 18 percent this year,” Mr. Bush wrote.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 19, 2000 edition of Education Week as Civil Rights Panel Criticizes College-Admissions Plans

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