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'Race-Neutral' University Admissions in Spotlight

The Nation

UC, Florida and Texas systems still have diversity after dumping affirmative action.

January 17, 2003|Mitchell Landsberg, Peter Y. Hong and Rebecca Trounson | Times Staff Writers

The public universities of California, Texas and Florida, whose "race-neutral" admissions policies were applauded by President Bush this week, are notable for their efforts to achieve the goals of affirmative action -- racial diversity -- without actually using affirmative action.

The president's endorsement means that they are sure to be studied closely as the issue returns to the U.S. Supreme Court.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 19, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 5 inches; 190 words Type of Material: Correction
Boalt Hall -- A front-page article Friday incorrectly reported that the enrollment of underrepresented minority groups at UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall had not rebounded after an affirmative action ban. In fact, the percentage of first-year Latino students enrolled at the law school is now 13%, up 2.4 percentage points since 1996, the last year before the ban. The percentage of first-year black students, however, has not rebounded to the 1996 level of 7.6%.

Despite some variations in approach, all three states have tried to maintain, and ideally increase, the percentage of African American and Latino students on their campuses.

In fact, Bush's support for such systems might succeed in satisfying affirmative action opponents without alienating increasingly influential Latino voters and social moderates.

Some conservatives, such as University of California Regent Ward Connerly, worry that the new policies might amount to "back-door affirmative action." But supporters, such as Bush, who signed Texas' new admission policies into law as governor, say they are more equitable ways to achieve diversity without sacrificing excellence.

The admissions programs in California, Texas and Florida essentially take two approaches to maintain or increase diversity: They guarantee access to the top students in every high school, including those that are predominantly or entirely minority, or they recruit low-income and otherwise disadvantaged students, many of whom were presumed to be black or Latino.

The extent to which such "race-neutral" policies have succeeded is disputed. In general, they have maintained diversity in all but the most elite institutions. But those are the very institutions that attract the most attention and, perhaps more important, serve as pipelines to positions of power and influence.

So, for instance, the University of California has increased the percentage of admitted African American, Latino and Native American students from 18.8% in 1997 -- the last year of race-based policies -- to 19% in 2002. But at the system's most competitive campuses, UCLA and UC Berkeley, underrepresented minority enrollment has dropped and has yet to rebound. This is true especially at such prestigious institutions as Boalt Hall Law School at Berkeley.

UC Regent Tom Sayles, who like Connerly is African American, said he "liked the old model" -- meaning affirmative action that gives extra consideration to underrepresented minorities -- better than the university's current policies.

"I see the UC as a model in what we're doing, and we're doing the best we can," he said. "But I don't feel that what we have now has fully replaced the model we had before."

California voters banned race-based affirmative action in 1996 with the passage of Proposition 209. Texas and Florida, which have two of the largest public university systems in the nation after California's, also abolished affirmative action.

The University of California changed its admissions policies to guarantee enrollment to the top 4% of students at all California high schools. It also decided to consider personal qualities, such as leadership or a history of overcoming adversity, for all applicants.

The changes in Texas were prompted by a lawsuit. Texas' affirmative action program was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1996.

The next year, then-Gov. George W. Bush signed into law the "Ten Percent Plan," which guaranteed that the top 10% of students in any Texas high school would be guaranteed admission to the University of Texas and Texas A&M system.

In addition, the University of Texas launched a recruitment campaign aimed at encouraging African American and Latino students to apply. The result: Since scrapping its affirmative action program in 1996, the University of Texas system has seen a 15% increase in the number of black students and a 10% increase in Latinos. The number of white students has declined 2%.

But the story is not as simple as those figures make it appear. Minority enrollment in the most elite branches of the Texas system has declined, in some cases precipitously. The biggest gains have been at second-tier schools such as Prairie View A&M, the University of Houston and Stephen F. Austin State University, where black and Latino enrollment has increased by as much as 90%.

By contrast, at the prestigious University of Texas-Austin, black enrollment has declined by 17% and Latino enrollment by 5%. White enrollment is largely unchanged. At Texas A&M, black enrollment is down by 14%, Latino enrollment by 1%, and white enrollment has increased by 13%.

Among the most dramatic declines have been those at the University of Texas Law School, a traditional path to power and influence in Texas. There, said University of Texas spokesman Monty Jones, black enrollment dropped 58%, from 97 students in 1996, the year that affirmative action was overturned, to 41 in 2001, the last year for which numbers were available.

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