Law & Courts

Reports: ‘Percent Plans’ Do Little To Promote Diversity

By Sean Cavanagh — February 19, 2003 5 min read
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College-admissions plans in California, Florida, and Texas that rely on high school class rank—trumpeted by supporters as viable, race-neutral substitutes for affirmative action—have made little progress in improving diversity on college campuses, say two new Harvard University studies.

“Appearance and Reality in the Sunshine State: The Talented 20 Program in Florida,” and “Percent Plans in College Admissions: A Comparative Analysis of Three States’ Experiences,” are available from the Harvard Civil Rights Project. (Require Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

Those states, the reports conclude, have sustained diverse enrollments largely by aggressively, though not always explicitly, recruiting minority students, despite an appearance of race neutrality.

The studies emerge as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to consider the legality of affirmative action policies used by the University of Michigan, in a case likely to shape the use of racial preferences in higher and precollegiate education for years to come. (“Admissions Case Could Have Impact on K-12 Education,” Dec. 11, 2002.)

The review was undertaken by Harvard’s Civil Rights Project, a research organization devoted to the study of racial and social inequity, particularly in education. The first study, “Percent Plans in College Admissions: A Comparative Analysis of Three States’ Experiences,” examines the value of all three states’ programs.

The second report, “Appearance and Reality in the Sunshine State: The Talented 20 Program in Florida,” dissects the 1999 plan that barred racial preferences in public university admissions.

Created as part of Gov. Jeb Bush’s sweeping “One Florida Initiative,” the Talented 20 model guarantees entry to Florida public colleges for students ranked in the top 20 percent of their classes after seven semesters of high school, regardless of race. Other factors, such as standardized-test scores, determine which campuses they can attend.

The report on Florida argues that the policy has primarily guaranteed admission to students who would have been accepted anyway, aside from their class ranks—and thus does little to help minorities.

Gary Orfield

Only 150 of the students admitted to Florida public universities in 2000, and 177 students in 2001, owed their acceptance to the Talented 20 program, according to the Civil Rights Project’s analysis. Those figures fall short of the 400 additional minority students that Gov. Bush, a Republican, had predicted would get accepted to Florida’s public universities, the report says.

“There is simply no basis for the claim that Florida’s Talented 20 percent plan solved the affirmative action issue,” writes Gary Orfield, the co-director of the Civil Rights Project. “This report indicates that the percent plan was virtually irrelevant.”

More Than Numbers

While they are forbidden to use race as a factor in admissions, Florida’s public universities still rely on minority-recruitment
and -retention efforts to maintain diversity, the report concludes. Those race-conscious policies, it says, are vital to the state’s flagship schools, the University of Florida and Florida State University, in their efforts to maintain diversity.

But Gov. Bush rejected the report’s findings. He said the authors had ignored the One Florida program’s broad efforts to boost students’ preparation and access to higher education. More minority students are taking college-entrance exams and Advanced Placement courses under the initiative, the governor said in a statement.

“Talented 20 is more than the numbers game to which the researchers attempt to reduce it,” Mr. Bush said. “It is a program that benefits students at poorer schools who have striven to do their best but still needed assistance in admission to the university system.”

Gov. Bush ventured more directly into the affirmative-action fray last month, when, like the administration of his brother, President Bush, he filed a legal brief with the Supreme Court opposing the University of Michigan’s race-based admission policies. The president was the governor of Texas when it adopted its percentage plan; his brother touted Florida’s approach in his legal filing.

At the University of Florida, the percentage of black applicants who were admitted increased from 10.8 percent in 1999 to 12.9 percent in 2000, the first year of Talented 20, but fell to 9.4 percent the next year, the “Sunshine State” report says. During those two years, according to the study, the Hispanic share of admissions was virtually unchanged, going from 12.2 percent to 12.3 percent, and the proportion of white students similarly rose only slightly, from 67.5 percent to 67.7 percent.

The three-state report says that the percentage plans have made only “modest” gains in boosting diversity, yielding minority admissions that still fail to match the states’ college-age populations.

Texas guarantees admission at any public university to students in the top 10 percent of their graduating classes. California ensures a spot for students in the top 4 percent, though, like Florida, that does not guarantee applicants entry to all its system’s campuses. Blacks and Hispanics have not gained admission as readily to the California system’s most elite campuses, at Berkeley and Los Angeles, the study found. Critics, as the study notes, call the slippage of those minority students into less selective campuses “cascading.”

Public universities in Texas and California have used “race-conscious” efforts to recruit minorities, the report says, despite sticking to bans on race-preferences in admissions. Texas, for instance, offers scholarships and recruits at economically disadvantaged schools where historically it has drawn few students.

Bruce Walker, the director of admissions at the University of Texas at Austin, said his institution has tried to broaden the number of high schools it serves—some of which are heavily minority.

“If any university, anywhere, wants to make its future different than its past, they’re going to have build relationships with high schools,” Mr. Walker said.

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