'U' gauges geographic diversity

BY GABE NELSON
Daily News Editor
Published March 28, 2007

Students from underprivileged neighborhoods and high schools will get a boost in the admissions process now that the University is using a new demographics service offered by the College Board.

The service, called Descriptor Plus, sorts students into "neighborhood clusters" and "high school clusters." It provides the University with demographic information about the socioeconomic, educational and racial breakdown of the applicant's neighborhood or high school - information that University officials say will help them select diverse freshman classes without considering race.

The University's undergraduate admissions office began using the service at the beginning of the current admissions cycle in September.

University officials said they hope the service will help the University maintain ethnic diversity after the passage of Proposal 2, which banned the use of affirmative action.

But Proposal 2 wasn't the reason for the implementation of the system, said Chris Lucier, director of recruitment and operations for the University's undergraduate admissions office.

"It's not a device that's oriented solely at social or ethnic diversity," Lucier said. "It's another tool for us to identify populations that might not have the same access to higher education as other populations."

But Lucier said Descriptor Plus is legal under Proposal 2 because it's based on geographic and educational information - the consideration of which Proposal 2 didn't outlaw. Admissions officers and the College Board don't use ethnic information when grouping students into clusters.

He said Descriptor Plus is one of many factors taken into account when considering applications.

Using demographic characteristics like annual income, ethnic breakdown and college attendance, Descriptor Plus groups neighborhoods into one of 30 "Educational Neighborhood Clusters." It also forms "High School Clusters" by measuring factors that show a school's academic quality and its students' racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Alan Foutz, an attorney for The Pacific Legal Foundation, a California-based law firm that opposes affirmative action, said it would be hard to challenge the University's use of Descriptor Plus in court.

"They would have to establish that the criteria they are using are subterfuge for actual racial profiling, which would be a difficult case to establish," he said. "If they are in fact taking into consideration the whole panoply of demographics that are attached to a particular geographic area, that is most likely not a violation of Michigan's Proposal 2."

The number of students at the University from each cluster varies dramatically. Five of the 30 neighborhood clusters produced about three quarters of the students that make up the University's class of 2008 and class of 2009, according to data from the Office of Undergraduate Admissions.

These five clusters range from middle-class to very affluent. About 90 percent of students in each of the five groups are white.

Ted Spencer, executive director of the University's undergraduate admissions office, said the University hopes Descriptor Plus will prevent the sharp drop in minority attendance that was seen at the University of Texas and the University of California system after their states banned the use of affirmative action.

"We make no bones about the fact that diversity's important to us," he said.

But Lucier said it's unclear whether the new system will work.

"We don't know if it will help us," he said.

The service costs $15,000 per year, University spokeswoman Deborah Green said.

Forty-one other colleges - primarily private schools - currently use Descriptor Plus, according to a list provided by Steve Graff, director of admission and enrollment services for the College Board. Michigan State University and Northwestern University are the only other Big Ten schools using it.

"Many institutions are using it to find underserved populations because they can find populations that aren't necessarily part of their mix of students," he said. "They can pay more attention to students that they aren't sure are getting the message."

Although some colleges use Descriptor Plus to analyze how students from certain neighborhoods perform academically or how likely they are to attend the school if accepted, most don't use the service as a key factor when making admissions decisions, Graff said.

When the University bought the right to use Descriptor Plus three years ago, it originally intended to use the service to recruit students from underrepresented groups, Lucier said.

He said admissions officials eventually decided it would be more useful in admissions.

Lucier said Descriptor Plus is a more accurate snapshot of a student's background than the application previously provided.

Admissions officers are currently able to see an applicant's gender and race - but they can't use that information when making an admissions decision. Admissions officials haven't decided whether that will change next year, Lucier said.

Descriptor Plus
In the fall, the University began using software that groups applicants into clusters based on socioeconomic data.

Neighborhood Cluster 1
Students come from well-educated, fairly affluent families. The neighborhood is primarily white.
Parents' average annual income: $74,300
Percent minority students: 11
Percent of 'U' students from this cluster: 28

Neighborhood Cluster 28
Applicants from this cluster are predominantly black. Parents tend to have lower incomes and less education.
Parents' average annual income: $42,600
Percent minority students: 71
Percent of 'U' students from this cluster: 3

Neighborhood Cluster 20
Students in this cluster come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds - many are Asian - and may need English as a Second Language classes in order to excel in college.
Parents' average annual income: $78,300
Percent minority students: 38
Percent of 'U' students from this cluster: 2

Neighborhood Cluster 23
This neighborhood is also primarily white, but has lower income and parental educational levels.
Parents' average annual income: $54,100
Percent minority students: 9
Percent of 'U' students from this cluster: 7
(Source: The College Board's guide to Educational Neighborhood Clusters and data from the University's Office of Undergraduate Admissions)