Colleges desperate to legally attract minority students

Published: Friday, January 26, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 26, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

With Michigan's new ban on affirmative action going into effect, and similar ballot initiatives looming in other states, many public universities are scrambling to find race-blind ways to attract more blacks and Hispanics.

At Wayne State University Law School in Detroit, a new admissions policy, without mentioning race, allows officials to consider factors like living on an Indian reservation or in mostly black Detroit, or overcoming discrimination or prejudice.

Others are using many different approaches, like working with mostly minority high schools, using minority students as recruiters, and offering summer prep programs for promising students from struggling high schools.

Ohio State University, for example, has started a magnet high school with a focus on math and science, to help prepare potential applicants, and sends educators into poor and low-performing middle and elementary schools to encourage children, and their parents, to start planning for college.

Officials across the country have a sense of urgency about the issue in part because Ward Connerly, the black California businessman behind such initiatives in California and Michigan, is planning a kind of Super Tuesday next fall, with ballot initiatives against racial preferences in several states.

He is researching possible campaigns in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming, and expects to announce next month which states he has chosen.

Ann Korschgen, vice provost at the University of Missouri, said in a recent interview, "Just this morning, we had a conversation along the line of how we would continue to ensure diversity at our campus if we could not consider race."

The issue is already heating up in Colorado. This month, two Republican representatives in Colorado asked the state to examine the University of Colorado's spending on diversity, after a libertarian group questioned the expenditures.

Connerly said that a decade ago, when California passed its ban, Proposition 209, he thought the state was ahead of its time, but now, he believes "the country is poised to make a decision about race, about what its place in American life is going to be — and I really believe the popular vote may be the way to achieve that."

Both defenders and opponents of affirmative action say the lesson of last fall's campaign in Michigan — where Proposition 2, banning race and gender preferences in public education, employment and contracting, passed by 58 percent to 42 percent despite strong opposition from government, business, labor, education and religious leaders — is that such initiatives can succeed almost anywhere.

"Certain things become popular as state initiatives, like the ban on gay marriages, and restrictions on affirmative action could become one of those things," said Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education.

If so, he said, private universities, with their wide discretion in admissions and financial aid, could have a competitive advantage regarding diversity, reshaping the landscape of higher education.

To many educators, that would be a troubling turnabout.

"You'd think public universities are charged with special responsibility for ensuring access, but it could come to be exactly the opposite, if there are a lot of these state initiatives," said Evan Caminker, the dean of the University of Michigan law school, adding, "in terms of public values, it's a big step backward."

Connerly is unbothered: If black and Hispanic students are rare at selective universities the solution is better academic preparation, not special treatment in admissions. "Every individual should have the same opportunity to compete," he said. "I don't worry about the outcomes."

Legally, affirmative action has been a moving target. In 2003 the Supreme Court ruled in cases involving the University of Michigan, that race could be one of many factors in admissions, although admissions offices could not give extra points to minority candidates.

Many colleges nationwide then moved to "holistic" review, considering applicants' ethnicity, but not awarding a set number of points. In states that could face a ballot initiative campaign, though, that standard could fall.

Nationwide, after 30 years of debate and litigation over affirmative action, universities have made strikingly little progress toward racially representative student bodies.

And recently, with growing awareness that affluent students are vastly overrepresented at selective colleges, the longstanding focus on racial diversity has been joined by a growing concern about economic diversity.

Currently, four states with highly ranked public universities — California, Florida, Michigan and Washington — forbid racial preferences, either because of ballot propositions or decisions by elected officials.

In California and Texas, the first two states to ban racial preferences, underrepresented minorities at the flagship universities declined — even though both states, and Florida, adopted plans giving a percentage of top high school graduates guaranteed admission to the state's public universities.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a program guaranteeing that low-income students can graduate debt-free helped to increase the percentage of blacks in the freshman class to 12 percent, and to increase both economic diversity and the enrollment of underrepresented minorities.

Other states have started similar programs.

The University of Michigan, with other state institutions, tried to win a delay of the ban so it would not hit in the middle of this year's admissions cycle. But the courts rejected this effort, so officials have stopped considering race and sex as factors in admissions, and worry that next year's entering class will be less diverse. Many officials worry that they will lose top minority candidates to selective private universities.

"We know from colleagues in Texas and California that if we can't take race into account, we're at a competitive disadvantage," said Julie Peterson, a spokeswoman for the University of Michigan, where two-thirds of the applicants are from out of state.

Since most of Michigan is overwhelmingly white, said Mary Sue Coleman, the university's president, a plan guaranteeing admission to a percentage of top high school graduates would have little impact, and nothing short of affirmative action will maintain the school's racial diversity.

"Of course you want to look at family income, and being the first in the family to attend college and those kinds of factors, of course we do that, but it doesn't get us to a racially diverse student body," she said.

In Detroit, Wayne State University law school recently adopted a new admissions policy. Jonathan Weinberg, the professor assigned last year to draft a contingency policy, looked at other states with race-blind admissions, and found that instead of race, they look to "a set of broader diversity concerns that go to socioeconomic status."

Last month, the faculty adopted his policy, eliminating any mention of race, but broadening the factors the admissions office may consider. Among them are being the first in the family to go to college or graduate school, having overcome substantial obstacles, including prejudice and discrimination, being multilingual, and residence abroad, in Detroit or on an Indian reservation.

Frank Wu, the law school's dean, said that Wayne State's effort to comply with the law could bring a legal challenge.

"There's a new fight building," Wu said, "and that's going to be whether the mere fact that you're striving for diversity means you're somehow trying to get around the ban and find proxies, or pretexts, for race, and that that's impermissible. It's ironic, but in some quarters our effort to adopt a new policy to comply with Prop 2 has been interpreted as an effort to circumvent it."

Roger Clegg, president of the Council for Equal Opportunity, which opposes racial preferences, said policies like Wayne State's do raise questions.

"I have a real problem when schools adopt what on their face are race-neutral criteria, if they are doing so to reach a pre-determined racial and ethnic goal," Clegg said. "Both in law and in common sense, the motivation matters."

At Ohio State University, where admissions are increasingly selective, officials are looking for a long-term answer. "When we saw what was coming down the road, we started looking to other models, but no other model results in as much diversity," said Mabel Freeman, assistant vice president at Ohio State. "The only long-term solution is to do better in the pipeline and make sure all kids get the best education possible, K-12."

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