With the resolution of the lawsuits against the University’s affirmative action policies – expected to determine the fate of affirmative action in college admissions around the country – fast approaching, the University may soon have an influential new opponent. The Bush administration is considering joining the legal fight against the admissions programs of the College of Literature, Science and the Arts and the Law School. Many administration officials want to be a part of the expected culmination of the last few years’ pattern of repeal and invalidation of affirmative action in college admissions around the country – its nation-wide elimination.

Paul Wong
Peter Cunniffe

But whatever the legal resolution of the question of affirmative action, colleges will continue to strive for diversity. And as the experience of those schools whose affirmative action programs have already been eliminated show, they will eventually be successful. Opponents of affirmative action programs like the University’s, which include George W. Bush, have insisted racial diversity will not be destroyed by ending affirmative action and have been largely correct. After the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals banned affirmative action in admissions to Texas’ state universities in the 1996 case, Hopwood v. Texas, then-Gov. Bush, supported a new system – the “affirmative access” he still promotes as an acceptable means of achieving diversity – designed to keep minority numbers stable in Texas colleges. It guarantees the top 10 percent of high school graduates admission to state universities. Because of the deep segregation of the Texas school system – which is common throughout the United States – the “10 percent” policy quickly returned black and Latino admissions at Texas universities to their pre-Hopwood levels.

In Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush’s One Florida program, which replaced affirmative action at state universities with expanded minority recruitment efforts, college preparation programs and guaranteed admission to the top 20 percent of high school graduates, has also been effective in increasing minority enrollment after a brief dip following the elimination of affirmative action. These programs have not completely solved the problem of reduced minority enrollment.

In Florida and California for example, while system-wide minority enrollment has returned to levels comparable to those achieved with affirmative action, the numbers have never fully recovered at their most elite schools. But these admissions processes are being continually modified to increase the number of minority students in race-neutral ways, such as reducing the importance or even eliminating all consideration of standardized tests and placing more weight on factors such as “overcoming adversity.”

At least in the undergraduate admissions process (this will be a much trickier problem for graduate programs), they will eventually find the right balance of non-racial factors to admit the number of minorities they want.

Ironically, while affirmative action opponents claim deserving students are unfairly kept out under the current system, the race-neutral methods of achieving diversity that are promoted by those like Bush may be what actually ensure unqualified students are admitted. Consider the “10 percent” rule. High school grades, difficulty of curriculum, standardized test scores, extracurricular activities, essays and letters of recommendation really are useful in determining who is most likely to succeed in college. Current university admissions procedures contain so many criteria because all of them together give a much better idea of the abilities of a student. Those who took hard classes or got high. SAT scores or distinguished themselves extracurricularly, but fell bellow the 10 percentage cutoff, may be much more qualified than those who concentrated only on doing well in easy classes and went to bad schools – practices encouraged by “10 percent”-type rules. College admissions have also never been solely about academic criteria. Universities use a number of controversial factors – alumni relatives, socioeconomic status, geographic diversity, athletic ability and race – because they help assembles a class meeting a variety of the school’s goals. Race is probably the most justifiable of these because racial diversity is educationally beneficial, improving the education of all the members of the class (diversity’s educational benefits are disputed, but the University has conducted studies demonstrating them and the large number of companies supporting the University’s policies certainly believe it makes graduates more desirable).

Even if the University’s policies are struck down, those who lament that their minority classmates took the places of more qualified students and cheer on a presidential attack on affirmative action are in for an unpleasant surprise. Diversity programs won’t go away, but alternatives like “affirmative access” may be what actually lowers the quality of students at the University.

Peter Cunniffe can be reached at pcunniff@umich.edu.

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