Law & Courts

Court Case Prompts New Admissions Policies

By Sean Cavanagh — September 10, 2003 5 min read
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With last June’s U.S. Supreme Court rulings on affirmative action as a road map, the University of Michigan is leading colleges and universities out of the gate in retooling policies on the consideration of race and ethnicity in student admissions.

Beginning with the freshman class that will enter in fall 2004, Michigan will discard its much-scrutinized system of awarding points to minority undergraduate applicants on the basis of race. University officials say they will instead consider race in a more “holistic” way, in meeting the demands of the high court’s rulings in cases challenging their undergraduate and law school admissions practices.

Michigan’s new undergraduate policy is serving as a harbinger of admissions overhauls at other campuses, where administrators are seeking to craft legally defensible affirmative action plans of their own.

The University of Michigan posts resources on its new admissions policy.

Many of those schools hope to have revamped procedures in place by the time they start reviewing applications for next fall’s entering classes. Michigan began reworking its undergraduate policy within a week of the court’s June 23 decisions and spent the next month fine-tuning it, university Provost Paul N. Courant said.

“We’re as confident as we can be,” he said. “We always believed that diversity added to our ability to provide an excellent education. The methods for providing it will change somewhat, but the overall goal will remain the same.”

Officials at Ohio State University, which had also used a point-based system that took race into consideration, approved a new admissions model on Aug. 26. The new policy allows race as an admissions factor, along with socioeconomic status, extracurricular activities, and other measures, without giving it a numerical value.

Outside Scrutiny

Ohio State admissions officials consulted with state university administrators in Michigan, California, and Florida in crafting the new policy, said Mabel G. Freeman, the university’s assistant vice president for undergraduate admissions. The work delayed the release of fall 2004 applications by two weeks. The new admissions model will be reviewed constantly, she said.

“There will be a lot of internal scrutiny, because we’re expecting there to be a lot of external scrutiny,” Ms. Freeman said.

Already, the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Sterling, Va.-based advocacy organization that was among the opponents of Michigan’s race- conscious policies, has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education over one new policy.

In its Aug. 18 complaint to the department’s office for civil rights, the center argues that Rice University in Houston plans to use racial preferences in a way not allowed by the Supreme Court’s Michigan rulings.

The center also warned University of Texas at Austin officials in an Aug. 20 letter not to reimplement racial preferences. In both cases, the center argues that the universities have achieved diversity through court-imposed, colorblind policies that now make race-based models unnecessary. Officials at both Rice and Texas said the center’s criticism was premature, given that neither institution had settled on new admissions procedures.

The rush to rework admissions policies stems from the Supreme Court’s landmark rulings in the Michigan cases.

In Grutter v. Bollinger, the court ruled 5-4 to uphold the admissions policy at the University of Michigan’s law school, which did not employ a point system but used race to come up with a “critical mass” of students from underrepresented minorities. The majority opinion by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor strongly endorsed the principle of promoting racial diversity in education.

In Gratz v. Bollinger, however, the court struck down Michigan’s policy of assigning underrepresented minorities a bonus of up to 20 points, on a 150- point scale, for undergraduate admissions. In ruling 6-3 to strike down that system, the court held that assigning points on the basis of race did not provide the “individualized consideration” of applicants necessary to pass constitutional muster. (“Justices Give K-12 Go-Ahead to Promote Diversity,” July 9, 2003.)

Many college officials read the court’s opinions as allowing race-based admissions in higher education, as long as colleges institute more comprehensive systems of evaluating of the abilities of all students who seek admission.

More Reading, Writing

At the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, that meant replacing the point system with a process that administrators say will yield a broader picture about a student’s background, academic strengths, and personal characteristics— including race.

Previously, Michigan reviewed applications using a “selection index” that assigned points on the basis of the academic rigor of high school classes, grade point average, socioeconomic upbringing, and race, among other factors.

Under the new process, each application will first be evaluated by a “reader,” who will recommend whether to admit the student. The file will then be passed on to a professional admissions counselor, who will make an independent recommendation. Those two reviews will go to a senior manager in the admissions office, who will make a final decision.

While the former process required one written essay from applicants, the new policy asks for one long essay and two shorter ones, and gives students the option of writing a third essay.

That more intense review comes with a cost. The budget for undergraduate admissions at Michigan will increase from roughly $4.6 million to between $6.1 million and $6.6 million for the 2003-04 academic year, Mr. Courant estimates, before settling to a projected $5.6 million annually.

The university is hiring more than 20 readers and admissions-staff members to review applications, in addition to adding technical- and clerical- support employees, spokeswoman Julie Peterson said. Michigan typically receives about 25,000 applications for freshman enrollment each year and admits around 50 percent of applicants, she said.

Michigan’s new policy bears a distinct similarity to the University of California system’s process of “comprehensive review,” said Barmak Nassirian, the associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars, in Washington. The California plan does not consider applicants’ races, but it does ask them to describe special talents and any disadvantages they have overcome.

While Michigan’s new policy was clearly a response to the high court’s ruling, Mr. Nassirian said it also reflects a commitment by many selective state universities to assess applicants in more subjective and creative ways—many of which require written essays.

“There was increasing dissatisfaction with the mechanical, numerically driven methods we used to see,” Mr. Nassirian said, while new admissions polices “fit into a narrative structure.”

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