Law & Courts

Eyeing Campus Diversity

By John Gehring — August 08, 2001 15 min read
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As affirmative action fades, colleges try ‘percent’ plans to increase diversity. But do they work as well?

When state lawmakers and faculty members from the University of Texas gathered in downtown Austin on a hot, spring afternoon for a strategy session five years ago, anger mingled uneasily with an urgent need to get to work.

Just a month earlier, a federal appeals court had ruled that race could no longer be used as a factor in admissions decisions at one of the nation’s largest public universities. The ruling also ultimately ended the use of race and ethnicity in financial-aid and scholarship decisions.

Few legal decisions in the past decade have rocked the higher education world quite like Hopwood v. Texas. Students demonstrated en masse. Professors penned protest letters. Critics warned the decision would lead to the resegregation of public colleges.

College and university presidents and admissions officers around the country expressed dismay at the ruling, saying they feared that their own firmly entrenched affirmative action policies would be the next to be struck down by a judiciary increasingly critical of race- based policies.

“You had a lot of people running around without a lot of direction,” recalls David Montejano, then the director of the Center for Mexican-American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. “The decision came as a surprise. It really upset the cart. There was a lot of anger and frustration, and also a lot of anxiety about looking for alternatives.”

In Texas, the Hopwood ruling sent legislators scrambling to craft a plan that would maintain racial, ethnic, and gender diversity on campuses. Their solution: a law that guaranteed admission to any state university to students who graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school classes.

While a 10 percent plan had been in place at the state’s flagship school, UT-Austin, since 1994, the old plan did not apply to every Texas university. And even at UT, officials used the plan in conjunction with an admissions policy that relied on affirmative action.

Similar percent-based admissions policies have since been approved in California and Florida. Both Colorado and Pennsylvania have considered similar plans.

As such admissions plans grow in popularity, those on both sides of the affirmative action debate are seeking evidence of what the impact has been on racial and ethnic diversity.

Those on both sides of the affirmative action debate are seeking evidence of what impact percent-based admissions plans have had on racial and ethnic diversity.

Little independent research has been conducted on what effects the percent-based plans have had on college admissions, in part because the plans are so new. Higher education experts are reluctant to draw sweeping conclusions based on what scant data are available.

Many experts are frustrated at the dearth of research, which they say is critical to assessing the plans.

But findings from a recent study at UT-Austin, statistics collected by the university systems in California and Florida, and interviews with college officials show that the often difficult transition away from race-conscious admissions practices has in some cases forced higher education systems to pay more attention to high schools that have traditionally sent few students to their states’ universities.

And while the percent plans are so new that their long-term effects on enrollment likely will not be felt for several years, there are signs that minority enrollment in some states like Texas has rebounded from initial drops and is back to pre- Hopwood levels.

Not everyone is convinced, meanwhile, that the key to diversifying college campuses lies solely in admissions policies.

Frank L. Matthews, the publisher and editor in chief of Black Issues In Higher Education, a national newsmagazine based in Fairfax, Va., says that percent- based admissions plans fail to address the real problem: persistent segregation in secondary education, where large proportions of minority students attend schools that lack resources and opportunities equal to those in most majority- white schools.

“Black kids are still going to schools that are predominately black,” Matthews says. “As long as we perpetuate segregated housing patterns and segregated high schools, you will have an outcome where the black kid or the Hispanic kid who graduates in the top 10 percent of the class is unfortunately coming from a school that is inferior. That is the part of this no one wants to admit.”

“The underlying question that has to be addressed,” Matthews argues, “is whether you can solve a racial problem without a racial solution.”

Plans Have Broad Appeal

In California, the regents of the 170,000-student University of California system voted in 1995 to phase out affirmative action in admissions, and a year later voters passed Proposition 209, a ballot measure that barred the use of race as a factor for hiring or admissions at any state institution.

In an effort to provide more pathways of college access to a diverse range of students, the UC regents last year guaranteed a spot at one of the university system’s 10 campuses to students who graduated in the top 4 percent of their high school classes. Students must apply individually to a specific campus.

Not everyone is convinced that the key to diversifying college campuses lies soley in admissions policies.

Last month, the regents expanded the plan, guaranteeing that the top 12.5 percent of students at any California high school can gain admission to a UC school—on the condition that those who fall between 4 percent and 12.5 percent first attend a community college for two years. The plan takes effect this fall.

The change, says UC President Richard C. Atkinson, “sends a signal to top-performing students, particularly those in disadvantaged high schools, that they have a clear path to a UC degree.”

In Florida, as part of Gov. Jeb Bush’s “One Florida” initiative that ended affirmative action in college admissions, state officials adopted a “Talented 20" program last year. It guarantees that the top 20 percent of graduating seniors from each state high school can gain admission to one of 10 public universities.

Not everyone has lauded the plan. Criticism has come from both liberals who say the policies are a poor substitute for affirmative action and some conservatives who argue that such programs are little more than a backdoor version of race-conscious policies.

The disparity in the quality of high schools across a state also concerns some educators, who contend that the top percentage of students in lower-performing high schools may not be as prepared for college, but still may edge out high-achieving students in strong high schools.

Donald E. Heller, an assistant professor of education at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, says that the percent plans have become popular in part because of their simplicity.

“All a student needs to know to determine whether he or she will be admitted to a particular college or system is his or her class rank,” says Heller, who has started researching how the use of race in admissions has affected the socioeconomic diversity of the freshman class at UT-Austin, the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Washington in Seattle.

“The underlying question that has to be addressed is whether you can solve a racial problem without a racial solution.”

Frank L. Matthews,
Publisher and Editor
in Chief,
Black Issues in Higher Education

“The alternative that many of the universities that have had to abandon affirmative action are considering or have implemented is a more holistic approach that takes into account greater consideration of application materials, such as personal essays and recommendations,” Heller says. “From the perspective of students, this approach is much more of a ‘black box,’ and they have much greater difficulty figuring their chances of being admitted than if all they need to know is their class rank.”

In a report last year, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, an independent agency that serves as a watchdog on civil rights issues, said that percent plans could gain “broad appeal” because of their goal of providing equal opportunity to higher education. But the panel concluded that such plans have serious flaws.

“Race-conscious affirmative action has not brought nearly enough black and Latino students into undergraduate, graduate, or professional higher education programs,” the commission’s report said. “The percentage plans will do no better and probably worse.”

The report went on to say that the most positive aspect of the plans is that they “shine a spotlight directly on the failure of the states to exercise their constitutional responsibility to ensure an equal opportunity to learn in K-12 for poor African-American and Latino students.”

Reaching Out to High Schools

The effort to reach out to high schools in rural and inner-city areas in Texas has been the anchor of the percent plan in that state, according to Bruce Walker, the director of admissions and associate vice president for student affairs at UT- Austin.

“What we have learned is that the percent plan, in and of itself, is not likely to be a sufficient replacement for diversity gained through affirmative action,” Walker says. “Colleges have to come up with other ways to encourage students to enroll.”

In 1998, the first year a class was enrolled under the post-Hopwood 10 percent plan, UT-Austin saw less than a 1 percent increase in the number of black and Hispanic students in the freshman class. Since then, the university has worked harder to target high schools with high percentages of low-income students that have not traditionally sent students to UT-Austin.

Starting three years ago, the university began providing $2,000 “Longhorn Opportunity” scholarships at about 50 high schools to help students pay for college. Today, that number has grown to 70 high schools.

The university also enhanced student-retention efforts by requiring recipients of Longhorn scholarship who had SAT scores under 1000 to take part in a program that provides academic support through peer advisers, counseling, and tutoring.

By 1999, the number of African-American first-time freshmen had increased by 23 percent at the state’s eight most selective public universities compared with 1996 enrollment figures. The percentage of Hispanic students rose 6 percent over the same period.

A recent study conducted by Montejano, one of the architects of Texas’ percent plan and now an associate professor of history and sociology at UT-Austin, found that only 74 high schools accounted for about half of last fall’s entering class at UT. But it also revealed that 170 high schools that hadn’t sent students to UT-Austin in 1996 did so in 2000.

“These plans, if they are done right, embody a populist spirit. Universities, as the gatekeepers to economic mobility in our society, need that spirit.”

David Montejano,
Associate Professor
of History and Sociology,
University of Texas

Most of those new students came from predominantly minority high schools in San Antonio, Houston, and the Dallas-Fort Worth metro areas and from rural high schools in the east and northeast part of the state, the study found.

And the students admitted to UT-Austin under the 10 percent policy, Montejano says, are outperforming other students who scored 200 to 300 points higher on the SAT. “These plans, if they are done right, embody a populist spirit,” he says. “Universities, as the gatekeepers to economic mobility in our society, need that spirit.”

While the difference in demographics and varying K-12 systems around the country preclude him from drawing any wide-ranging conclusions from the study, Montejano says that, in Texas, the percent plan has helped focus more attention on the precollegiate education system. “The plan has forced the legislature to deal with the curriculum in all schools,” he says. “More students are taking a college-prep curriculum.”

Gary Orfield, the director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, which is conducting a study of percent plans slated for completion this fall, believes that touting the success of the percent plan at the University of Texas at Austin as a model for other states “is a radical simplification of what happened on one campus.”

The campus, he notes, initially saw little improvement in the number of black and Hispanic students when it implemented the plan. It wasn’t until UT put in place a targeted scholarship and recruitment effort, he says, that the university successfully attracted more minority students.

Critics say that students who would have been admitted to California schools under race-specific policies have been left out by the percent plan.

In California, where Gov. Gray Davis pushed the UC regents to adopt the 4 percent plan in 1999, overall enrollment growth in the university system has also included increases in students from rural areas and underrepresented minorities, system officials say. University of California officials say that their research shows that since the percent plan took effect, the number of entering freshmen from rural areas has risen 11.3 percent and the number of students from underrepresented minorities has increased 13.6 percent.

But critics who have lobbied for a return to affirmative action in California say that students who would have been admitted under race-specific policies have been left out by the percent plan. Most enrollment growth among black and Hispanic students, those critics argue, has been taking place not on the flagship campuses in Los Angeles and Berkeley but at less prestigious campuses such as UC-Riverside, where Hispanic enrollment nearly doubled from 1,160 in 1997 to 2,261 in 2001.

As in Texas, the percent plan in California has spurred the university system to work more closely with high schools that traditionally have not sent many students to UC, says Carla Ferri, the system’s director of undergraduate admissions.

To drum up attention for the percent plan, university officials have been visiting high schools across the state. Some 2,000 additional applicants, Ferri says, have been added to the university system’s application pool because of the percent plan.

“We really feel like it has accomplished for us what it set out to accomplish,” she says.

Florida Results

Thousands of protesters rallied last spring in Tallahassee in April 2000 as Gov. Bush of Florida pushed to eliminate affirmative action in the state’s higher education system and replace it with a plan guaranteeing admission to the top 20 percent of graduating high school seniors.

Florida officials say the program has been successful in increasing campus diversity. Minority students made up about 40 percent of the freshman class of 2000, the first to be admitted since the end of race-conscious policies policies, higher education officials say.

Their initial review of admissions shows that 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 institutions in the state system increased their enrollment of black students, officials say.

Gov. Bush has touted that enrollment information, saying it “debunks the myth” that the One Florida plan would result in fewer minority students in the state’s universities. But more recent statistics collected for the Florida board of regents this past spring reveal the class of “Talented 20" students that enrolled in college last fall was less diverse than the university system’s overall enrollment.

Of the 11,539 students who enrolled under the 20 percent plan, about 13 percent were African-American and about 12 percent were Hispanic. That compares with an overall enrollment in the state university system that is 15 percent black and 15 percent Hispanic.

University and state officials in Florida say college officials have been much more aggressive in their recruiting efforts since the state’s percent plan began.

But some university officials and aides to the governor are quick to point out that college officials have been much more aggressive in their minority-recruitment efforts since the Talented 20 program began. In the spring of this year, for example, the University of Florida in Gainesville offered 10 scholarships for students at two inner-city high schools in Jacksonville.

John Barnhill, the director of admissions at Florida State University in Tallahassee, believes that the percent plan has helped motivate some students who might otherwise not have considered college. “There were probably students in that ‘Talented 20' who didn’t think they were college material,” he says.

Wait-and-See Approach

While the percent-based admissions plans have grown, some states are reluctant to adopt such a measure until the federal courts clear up the tangle of recent affirmative action decisions in college and law school admissions.

There is growing consensus that the U.S. Supreme Court will take up the issue again. The court last dealt with race-based admissions practices in 1978 in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. In that case, the justices allowed the consideration of race as one factor among several in admissions decisions. But federal courts have issued mixed decisions in recent months.

A federal district court in March ruled that the admission policy at the University of Michigan law school, which considers race as one of several factors, was unconstitutional. The ruling followed another decision from another judge on the same court last December that upheld the use of race in deciding undergraduate admissions at the university. Both cases are on appeal.

Another federal appeals court in December upheld race-based admissions at the University of Washington law school.

“There is a wait-and-see attitude,” says Jamie P. Merisotis, the president the Washington- based Institute for Higher Education Policy, an education think tank. “Without this tool [affirmative action] at their disposal, institutions are presented with real problems and the possibility of reducing access for these students.”

The Research section is underwritten by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in the August 08, 2001 edition of Education Week as Eyeing Campus Diversity


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