States Split on Ways to Diversify Colleges
By Ryan Justin Fox, Special to Stateline
Whether race should be considered in college admissions is likely to be a hot-button state issue this year in the wake of a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that sanctioned affirmative action, with limits.
Rather than laying to rest the issue of racial preferences, the court decision last June reopened the national controversy over race in ways that has states moving in opposite directions.
Empowered by the ruling, Georgia and Washington have moves afoot to resurrect the use of race and ethnicity as factors in college admissions to replace affirmative-action policies lost to earlier court cases or ballot measures.
But elsewhere, the political currents are running toward retrenchment. Michigan, epicenter of the Supreme Court ruling, is embroiled in a petition drive to place on the November ballot a ban on the use of race and gender in university admissions and in state hiring and contracting. In Colorado, the state's only black Republican legislator is laying plans to propose a ban on affirmative action with the backing of Gov. Bill Owens (R).
In Texas, the issue is cutting both ways. The University of Texas at Austin plans to reintroduce race as a factor in admissions in 2005. Its minority enrollment is down since a federal appeals court threw out the university's affirmative-action policy in 1996.
But across the state in College Station, Texas A&M University announced it will not give admissions preference to minorities. It plans, though, to scrap its long-time practice of giving admissions preference to legacies, children of alumni who also often donate money to the school, because it perpetuates an advantage for white students.
In the Michigan case, two white applicants sued the University of Michigan for giving preferences to minorities. The high court ruled 5-4 that colleges can consider race in admissions, in what is widely viewed as a victory for affirmative action supporters. The justices cautioned, however, that race alone cannot be the decisive factor, and they threw out a point system that automatically favored minorities.
The ruling is not the end of the issue in Michigan. California activist Ward Connerly formed the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative and pegged Jennifer Gratz, one of the white students who initiated the Supreme Court case, to help direct a campaign to collect a little over 317,000 signatures by July to get a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot. The measure would end affirmative action policies in state education and employment.
"Ballot initiatives are going to be the next wave of attacks [on affirmative action]," predicts Dale DeCesare, who tracks education policies for the Education Commission of the States.
Ballot initiatives already have been used to eliminate affirmative action policies in California and Washington. Connerly in 1996 helped get Californians to adopt Proposition 209 to end race-conscious admissions and employment. Last year, he helped to get on the ballot an even more restrictive Proposition 54, which would have barred the state from collecting racial data, but California voters soundly rejected it last October.
In Colorado, Republican state Sen. Ed Jones is preparing to introduce legislation to end racial preferences in education and employment. He said the state could be of more help to minorities by focusing on early education.
"When I go to these campuses, I don't see diversity, I see segregation," Jones said. "It's demeaning to [minorities] to have that stigma that they're only where they are because of affirmative action."
Heading in the opposite direction, the Washington Senate last month took steps to reintroduce diversity as a factor in college admissions. Gov. Gary Locke is supporting a bill that would allow officials to consider ethnicity and national origin to promote diversity on campus, but it would prohibit a quota on minorities. The measure would modify Initiative 200, approved by Washington voters in 1998, that eliminated racial and gender preferences not just in college admission but also in public employment and contracting.
The legislative action follows a letter from 17 of the 19 deans at the University of Washington campus asking that race be included as an admissions factor.
Bob Roseth, a spokesman for the university, said the next step is up to the legislature. "Regardless of what happens, outreach and heavy recruiting of minorities will still continue," he said. Minority enrollment is on a significant rebound the past couple of years, he said.
Also reopening the door to affirmative action, the University of Georgia has assembled a panel to decide how best to achieve diversity and regain recent losses in minority enrollment, said Vice President Delmer Dunn. The school in 2001 reluctantly dropped its affirmative action policy, which was similar to the point system struck down at Michigan's undergraduate school, after a federal court ruled against the system.
Dunn said that the University of Georgia is having a tough time figuring out what to do about issues--such as financial aid--that were not addressed by the Supreme Court. "Can we take race as a factor in determining who gets financial aid?" Dunn asked.
Cautious of making race-based decisions, certain colleges recently have decided to open scholarships once reserved for minority students to all ethnicities.
If affirmative action isn't the answer to achieving the "critical mass" of diversity that the Supreme Court wrote was in the best interest of the nation's campuses, what is?
Even alternatives to affirmative action are coming under fire, such as Florida's Talented 20 program that was spearheaded by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Florida's program, like Texas' Top 10 program, guarantees admittance to a state public college to students who rank in the top designated percentage of their high school class. The state NAACP branch is challenging the Florida program in state court.
DeCesare, of the Education Commission of the States, said that whether universities consider race or not, the debate is forcing admissions offices to abandon old formulaic methods of selecting students.
"What we'll see is a shift toward individualizing the application review process," he said. Universities are going to have to find cost-effective and creative ways to intensively review each application, he said.
"I don't think this issue is going to go away," DeCesare said. "There is still a lot to be learned."