As affirmative action proponents in Michigan gear up for another round against the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, advocates in other states are preparing for battles of their own. Legislators in Texas, one of several states where affirmative action is prohibited, are strongly considering modifying the state’s college admission policy to better account for racial diversity. Beginning with the problems plaguing the state’s 10 percent rule — a policy that guarantees any student graduating in the top 10 percent of his high school class will be granted admission into one of the state’s public universities — the Texas Legislature should make changes to the present admissions system, though no small tweak will suffice. A reform that hopes to have any chance at fostering comfortable academic environments for diverse student populations will have to be broad in scope and far reaching in its goals.
In 2004, 66 percent of the incoming freshmen at University of Texas-Austin and 47 percent at Texas A&M University, the state’s top two public universities, were admitted as a result of the 10 percent rule. The rule, which admittedly seeks to maintain a constant flow of diverse students from across the state, has severely narrowed the focus of the in-state admissions process. Instead of acknowledging the influential role of outside variables on the evolution of a student’s education, public universities in Texas have now made college admission decisions almost solely dependent on a single factor — class rank.
While class rank should certainly be considered in the admissions process, a system that makes it a trump card is undesirable. The Texas process ignores discrepancies in quality between high schools and other, often more important variables that set racially and geographically diverse students apart. The current system provides a disincentive for students to participate in activities or take certain classes that, though intellectually challenging, may lower their overall grade point average.
Currently, two bills are pending in the state Legislature that would change the rule to only guarantee admission to the top 5 percent in each high school class and cap the number of students that can be admitted automatically into state universities at 50 percent of any incoming college class. As the size of high school classes continues to grow and colleges become more competitive every year, it’s difficult to see how either of these changes will bring anything more than minor improvement.
Instead of merely chipping away at the current system, states like Texas, Florida and California — where class rank quotas have replaced race quotas — should consider an admissions system that balances legal responsibility with the best interest of the university. Such a system would be helpful in states like Michigan where a ban on affirmative action seems all but inevitable. States not permitted to consider race in admission processes should have one main strategy to ensure that their universities remain diverse. First, colleges need to actively recruit in areas that are dominated by minority and low-income students. Second, analytical questions about diversity — like those on the University’s application — should be included to make a student critically evaluate concerns pertaining to diversity. While some may fear that such a question could become an ideological litmus test, its ultimate purpose should be to ensure students are willing to thoughtfully analyze the role of diversity on a college campus.
After students have applied, qualified students in need of financial aid must be rewarded with it. Lastly, colleges must be more active in providing services to ensure that all students who choose to attend are not intimidated from asking for help along the way. Efforts to foster and maintain diversity, of course, cannot stop with the application process and should be evident throughout the course of college.