Despite President Bush’s announcement last month hailing the percent plans used in Florida, Texas and California state universities as successful race-neutral approaches to ensuring diversity in higher education, university officials in those states say the plans were never meant to fully take the place of affirmative action.
A Harvard University study released last week sought to discover how successful percent plans have been, as well as the reasons why they do or do not work. The study corresponded with the opinions of many university officials whose states have the plans by concluding percent plans are not an effective replacement for affirmative action.
The “Percent Plans in College Admissions: A Comparative Analysis of Three State’s Experiences” study, completed by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard, concludes that “although these plans have been presented as effective alternatives to race-conscious affirmative action … it is incorrect to attribute any significant increase in campus diversity to a percent plan alone.”
“The percent plan was designed as a substitute after we could not use affirmative action, but it is not the same as affirmative action,” said Bruce Walker, director of admissions at the University of Texas at Austin. “We are happy with the percent plan in the absence of affirmative action, but if we had the opportunity to use affirmative action … we would use it.”
The University of Texas system began using the “affirmative access” percent plan – which automatically admits students graduating in the top 10 percent of their high school class to the Texas public college or university of their choice – after the 1996 U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Hopwood v. Texas. The decision banned schools in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas from using race in admissions.
While Walker said the plans have been successful at certain schools in the Texas system – including UT-Austin, the state’s top flagship school – he said he does not believe the 10 percent plan could be used as a blueprint for other states. “If you looked at all of the percent plans that are currently in place, it would be hard to say that all of them have been successful,” he said.
“I think that is one of the problems with the percentage plan – they are dependent on a variety of factors of being in place.”
Walker said those factors include the type of geographical racial segregation within the state, how much outreach universities and colleges are able to provide, the number of universities or campuses within a school system and the percentage of out-of-state students accepted by the school.
Patricia Marin, a research associate at the Civil Rights Project, said schools in California, Texas and Florida that have achieved rises in minority enrollment – including UT-Austin, which saw its overall percentage of minority freshman increase this fall above its pre-Hopwood numbers – have done so only because of their use of raced-based recruitment, retention and scholarship programs.
Marin said that while UT-Austin’s minority numbers may have finally reached their 1996 numbers, the state’s minority population has increased since then.
“The fact that Texas can say that they are back to the numbers they were at seven years ago is not a success because the diversity of the state is increasing,” she said.
“They should be higher than were seven years ago.”
She added that she believes percent plans will not work in the majority of states, and especially not in Michigan, which has its minority populations largely segregated in Ann Arbor, Flint and Detroit. The state also runs its higher educational system differently than do Florida, Texas and California.
“Every state is unique, and that is the punch line here. To say that something that is in place in Texas can be transferred to Michigan or New York is to ignore the fact that these are unique states with unique populations,” she said.
Several higher education officials agreed.
“We don’t dispute the report’s conclusion that percent plans are a replacement for affirmative action,” University of California spokesman Hanan Eisenman said, adding that the percent plan has allowed California state universities to accept a greater number of minority students than was possible after the passing of Proposition 209, which outlawed the use of race as a factor in admissions.
“After Proposition 209 went into effect, there was a drop in minority students being admitted to the University of California, but since then we have rebounded, and 19.1 percent of students are minorities, compared to 18.8 percent in 1997,” he said.
“It has had a positive contribution on all campuses here … but there are limits as to how U-C’s experience can be applied to the rest of the nation.”