A lot of misplaced emotion surrounds the re-examination of affirmative action in college admissions. Lately this emotion has been aroused by the Supreme Court's agreement to consider admission preferences at the University of Michigan Law and undergraduate schools.
By June, the court will have completed its most intensive examination of college admissions in a quarter-century. In 1978, a deeply divided court held that the University of California, Davis, Medical School's policy setting aside seats for lesser-qualified minority applicants was illegal because it discriminated against white applicants. On the other hand, it ruled that race might be used in limited circumstances to create a more diverse academic environment.
That ambiguous decision, hailed at the time as a masterful compromise, has haunted higher education and the judiciary ever since.
The new decision, however, may have far less impact on American education than the parties assert because America is a different place than it was in 1978. First, higher education inevitably will become more representative and diverse, regardless of the Michigan decisions. Second, race-neutral programs have largely proved successful in increasing access for diverse students.
A 2002 American Council on Higher Education report shows that more Americans are enrolled in higher education than ever before. Among 18- to-24- year-old high school graduates, 43.2 percent of whites are enrolled in college, compared with 39.4 percent of African-Americans and 36.5 percent of Hispanics. Undergraduate enrollment is 56 percent female. During the 1990s, the percentage of African-American women attending college overtook the percentage of white males.
Most of the 3,300 American institutions of higher education will enroll any competent student. Admission is highly competitive only in graduate and professional schools and about 300 undergraduate schools. At the University of California, Berkeley, for example, hundreds of applicants with 4.0 grade point averages are rejected annually. Yet Berkeley (5 percent African-American; 11 percent Hispanic; 33 percent Asian/Pacific Islanders) is diverse even without preferences.
Diversity on most American campuses is occurring as a result of the massive demographic changes in the United States caused by immigration and relatively low white birth rates. From 1990 to 1999, white college enrollment fell 4.3 percent, while each minority group increased by 40 percent or more.
The number of minorities awarded bachelor's degrees doubled in the 1990s. Also, more than 582,000 foreign students add diversity. The University of Michigan enrolls more than 4,100 international students. Study abroad exists on almost all campuses.
The ubiquitous Internet means campuses have no boundaries and almost no limitations when students seek new ideas or to contact advocacy groups of every background around the world. Similarly, technology enables faculty members to acquire a variety of materials to stimulate discussion and debate on any subject. Ethnic studies, women's studies, and interdisciplinary programs abound on any large campus.
Although the legal fig leaf for college preferences is diversity, few, if any, institutions conducted research showing that their student body lacked individuals identified with any political, cultural, philosophical or religious position or life experience before designing a preference system. Instead, they simply identified some previous affirmative group categories and equated those groups with diversity.
The real problem is underrepresentation of African-Americans and Hispanics on the more competitive campuses because many fewer students from those groups meet the regular academic standards. (Asian-Americans are considered overrepresented and therefore not "diverse.")
In the past few years, however, when preferences have been ended by courts (Texas, Georgia), referendums (California, Washington state), and executive order (Florida), extensive race-neutral programs have been created to ensure access for people from diverse backgrounds. Two things have occurred. First, the dire predictions of the end of minority enrollment have not materialized. Generally, after an initial drop, minority enrollments have returned to the numbers attained by preferences.
New programs succeed
Second, that result is caused by the implementation of multifaceted race-neutral programs. Admitting students on the basis of class rank in California, Florida and Texas is opening doors to new students from inner-city and rural high schools.
Initial evaluations in Texas show that these students are doing as well as regularly admitted students. Admissions criteria have been re-examined to take into account the disadvantages particular students have faced. The SAT exam will be changed to measure learning rather than abstract reasoning. Efforts are being made in non-preference states to broaden access to Advanced Placement courses, to provide teacher training at low-performing schools and to increase financial aid.
Everywhere there is intense recruitment of high-achieving minority students. The challenge is to produce enough of them. But there is new commitment at the state level to hold failing schools accountable. The No Child Left Behind federal legislation intends to close achievement gaps related to wealth and ethnicity. Because the Supreme Court has said repeatedly that race-neutral means must be tried before using race-conscious tactics, it seems unlikely that the justices will approve preferences before it is certain none of these new alternatives work.
James Traub, who investigated California higher education after preferences were banned by a 1996 state referendum, drew a conclusion that can be applied to many states.
Expansion of 'pool'
"Ending affirmative action has had one unpublicized and highly desirable consequence: It has forced the university to try to expand the pool of eligible minority students ... " he said. "Academics and administrators throughout the system admit that the university would never have shouldered that heavy burden had it not been for the elimination of affirmative action; and many say the price is worth paying."
If such race-neutral plans work, the benefits for individual students and education as a whole will be enormous.
George R. La Noue is a professor of political science who teaches civil rights law and education policy in the Policy Sciences Graduate Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.