October 3, 2012

Study: Race-neutral college admissions can work

A new report offers evidence that public universities can bring meaningful diversity to their campuses through race-neutral means.

Justin Pope / The Associated Press

As the Supreme Court revisits the use of race in college admissions next week, critics of affirmative action are hopeful the justices will roll back the practice. A new report out Wednesday offers a big reason for their optimism: evidence from at least some of the nine states that don't use affirmative action that leading public universities can bring meaningful diversity to their campuses through race-neutral means.

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In this Feb. 13, 2012, photo, demonstrators protest outside of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals after a panel heard oral arguments in San Francisco in a lawsuit seeking to overturn Proposition 209, which barred racial, ethnic or gender preferences in public education, employment and contracting. As the Supreme Court revisits the use of race in college admissions in October 2012, critics of affirmative action are hopeful the justices are poised to roll back the practice. A new report out Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012 offers a big reason for their optimism: evidence the nine states where leading public universities don't use affirmative action have succeeded in bringing diversity to their campuses through race-neutral means. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File)

AP

That conclusion is vigorously disputed by supporters of race-based affirmative action, including universities in states like California which cannot under state law factor race into admissions decisions. The new report, by the Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and prominent advocate of class-based affirmative action, calls those states' race-neutral policies largely successful. The University of California and others call them a failure that's left their campuses inadequately representative of the states they serve.

Kahlenberg also acknowledges that highly selective universities like UCLA and the Universities of California-Berkeley and Michigan haven't recovered from drop-offs in minority enrollments after voters in those states outlawed racial preferences.

But in most places, the report argues, a combination of measures — aggressive outreach, de-emphasizing of standardized tests, affirmative action based on class instead of race, and even getting rid of legacy preferences that mostly benefit whites — has allowed minority representation on their campuses to recover to previous levels.

Seven states have banned racial preferences in admissions outright — Washington, Michigan, Nebraska, Arizona, New Hampshire, California and Florida. In Texas and Georgia leading public universities use a race-neutral system, though the University of Texas has maintained some use of affirmative action. It's that policy at UT that's now before the court in a case brought by Abigail Fisher, a rejected white applicant. Arguments are next Wednesday.

In its last two major affirmative action decisions, in 1978 and 2003, the court essentially took universities at their word when they argued it's impossible to achieve adequate racial diversity without factoring race into admissions. But in the 2003 decision, involving the University of Michigan, the court also indicated it would pay close attention to race-neutral experiments in the states to make sure racial preferences were really necessary to achieve diversity.

This time around, the swing vote is likely Justice Anthony Kennedy, who dissented in the case nine years ago, precisely because he believed colleges need to try harder to achieve diversity by other means before resorting to racial preferences.

"It's the central question in Fisher: whether race-neutral alternatives will work," Kahlenberg said.

Kahlenberg says the state data, compiled by Halley Potter, shows they do.

At the University of Washington, for instance, black and Latino enrollment fell after the use of race was banned but has since surpassed previous levels. At the University of Florida, Hispanic enrollment is higher and black enrollment is comparable to before race was banned (though the report's figures show black enrollment has fallen lately from nearly 15 percent to below 10 percent).

In Texas, diversity numbers plummeted during a period in the late 1990s when the university wasn't using affirmative action. The state implemented a "Top 10 percent" plan granting automatic admission to top high school students based on class rank, and its enrollment of underrepresented minorities has risen overall.

But supporters of affirmative action draw different lessons from the experiences of the states trying race-neutral methods. For one thing, they note states like California, Florida and Texas are much more diverse now, so holding minority numbers steady isn't progress. UT, which now uses race as a factor for a small part of its class, argues the Top 10 percent plan failed to provide sufficient diversity, noting blacks remain underrepresented and many classrooms lack minority voices.

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