What do you do when a diversity plan works too well?

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - In our long, hard slog through America's racial confusions, there are lessons to be found deep in the heart of Texas' dilemma over diversity on campus.

A "10 percent solution" plan that Texans devised to replace race-based college admissions policies has worked much better for the University of Texas than anyone had a right to expect. Unfortunately, that's the problem. State senators will begin holding committee hearings this month to investigate possible modifications to the plan they approved after a federal court outlawed the use of race in the admissions policies of the state's public universities in 1996.


The law guarantees college admission to the top 10 percent of the graduating class from any and every public or private high school in the state. Since race tends to follow neighborhood and income patterns, the result has been an increase in minority enrollment at the state's premier public universities - the University of Texas, Austin and Texas A&M; - plus a bonus increase in enrollment for rural whites.

For example, since the plan began in 1998, the number of schools that feed graduates to the University of Texas has risen from 600 of the state's 1,600 high schools to more than 800. Ah, what a lovely scheme. Small wonder that California and Florida quickly adopted similar percentage plans and other states are considering them.


But that's only the good news. Unfortunately, a Texas-size backlash has erupted among parents from better-off high school districts who voice a novel complaint: reverse discrimination against overachievers. Parents in more-affluent school districts are complaining that their hard-working, high-performing little Jills and Johnnies are being penalized for attending academically rigorous high schools where it is much tougher to make the top 10 percent.

Even advocates of the percentage plan say it would be a mistake to accuse these disgruntled parents of merely trying to hold on to upper-class privilege. The "10 percenters" have grown rapidly from about 40 percent of college freshman admissions to more than 70 percent, squeezing out gifted youths who have better test scores or special talents, such as musical abilities, but didn't quite make the top 10 percent of their class.

"As we reach deeper into the top 10 percent pool of high school graduates, we are beginning to see a fairness problem," said Douglas Laycock, a University of Texas law professor who helped defend the school's earlier affirmative-action policy before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

A consensus appears to be growing for lowering the percentage of students who are admitted under the percentage plan, which would raise the number of those who can be accepted based on test scores and other skills.

Yet another challenge is gathering on the horizon: The state's nonwhite population has been growing at a faster rate than the universities' nonwhite enrollment.

So what is to be done? An important clue may be offered by Texas A&M;, which has announced dramatic enrollment increases in all minority groups this fall, including a huge 57 percent increase for black students, even though it does not consider race or ethnicity in admissions.

As Texas A&M; has figured out, recruitment policies are just as important as admissions policies in attracting a diverse student body. As Mr. Laycock told me, the percentage plan has made recruitment easier because it crosses the credibility gap that college representatives often encounter with students who don't believe they really have a chance to get into the state's top schools.

"Our president can go into any high school and say, 'You don't have to just trust us. It's the law: Your competition is in this room. Make the top 10 percent, and you are guaranteed admission,'" he said.


That's a powerful sales pitch. Early research indicates that students admitted under the 10 percent plan actually perform better academically than the overall student average. The percentage plan works, but a reasonable limit needs to be found to avoid crowding out highly qualified students who didn't make the top 10 percent of their graduating class.

At the same time, the experience of Texas A&M; and other universities shows how effectively an aggressive recruitment effort can boost the enrollment of qualified minority students and other underserved communities.

In short, as Texas educators and legislators wrestle with the future of their percentage plan, they should remember the old Clinton administration slogan: Mend it, don't end it. Until that day comes when we are truly ready to leave no child behind in our public schools, the percentage plans move in the right direction.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Thursdays in The Sun.