If the Truth Be Cold …
In this time of increasing negative rhetoric, Chilling Admission: The Affirmative Action Crisis and the Search for Alternatives, published by the Harvard Civil Rights Project, provides a welcome statement of the positive effects of affirmative action in colleges and universities.In the foreword, Christopher Edley Jr., professor of law and co-director of the Civil Rights Project, poses these questions: What would be the consequences for student body diversity of eliminating race and ethnicity as factors in university admissions? Are there alternative, nonracial criteria for university admissions? Are the benefits from inclusion substantial enough to be a compelling reason for the maintenance of affirmative action?In the nine chapters, each a report of separate research, the editors — Gary Orfield and Edward Miller — and contributors seek answers to these questions. They consider the results of race-conscious admissions; early indications of the impact of court decisions in California, Texas, and Maryland, which outlawed race-conscious admissions and financial aid policies; and finally, possible race-blind admissions processes that would protect equal access to higher education. Orfield’s chapter provides context for the discussion, beginning with the history of legal racial segregation and discrimination, the effects of voluntary, race-conscious practices during the 1960s and early 1970s, and the erosion of these modest increases in the 1980s largely because of financial pressures. Contributor Thomas Kane looks at “Misconceptions in the Debate” by examining the extent of affirmative action in admissions decisions, whether affirmative action policies actually help or harm students, and whether there are race-neutral admissions criteria that would effectively produce the desired racial diversity. He found that only about 20 percent of all schools, the most selective, considered race as a “plus” factor in admissions, but the practices of these prestigious schools have generated much of the current backlash. Because only about 10 percent of all applicants are admitted to these schools, and Blacks and Hispanics represent only about 15 percent of admitted students, the probability of admission for White or Asian applicants would be increased only marginally by the elimination of these practices. His data-based analysis also concludes that students admitted because of affirmative action are highly successful.Four of the articles focus on the impact on minority enrollment of the Hopwood decision in Texas and University of California (UC) Regent’s SP-1 action which mandated “color-blindness” in the admission process. Berkeley scholar Jerome Karable shows in his chapter that even before the implementation of SP-1, applications from Blacks dropped 25 percent and those from Chicanos dropped 31 percent in a two-year period. The trend accelerated in the first year following implementation of SP-1.Similarly, contributor Susanna Finnell uses data from Texas A&M University which shows a drop of nearly 20 percent in the enrollment of Blacks and Hispanics, even prior to implementation of the Hopwood decision. The University designed an intensive review process to mitigate the loss of scholarship funding and the resulting reduction in the ability to attract students of color. The new process cost substantially more, but resulted in no clear success in maintaining the representation of students of color. Contributors Susan Wilbur and Marguerite Bonous-Hammarath discuss a UC-Irving strategy for maintaining a diverse student body within the constraints of California Proposition 209 and the UC Regent’s Resolution SP-1. The fall 1997 admissions process selected 60 percent of the freshman class solely on academic profile — grade-point averages (GPAs) and standardized test scores. The remaining 40 percent were selected on the basis of academics and a personal profile that included evaluation of leadership and initiative, honors and awards, personal challenges, geographic challenges, self-awareness, civic and cultural awareness, and specialized knowledge.Although the more comprehensive process required significantly more staff time, this study concluded that use of the expanded screening process demonstrated that, “it is possible for a selective university to admit an academically well-prepared and diverse freshman class without the use of race or ethnicity in the review process.” In “Notes from the Field: Higher Education Desegregation in Mississippi,” contributors Robert Kronley and Claire Handley discuss the history of more than 20 years of desegregation efforts. Again in this article, we see confusion of contradictory court decisions and agency findings. After two decades of remediation programs, differential admissions standards, and other efforts designed to provide equal educational opportunity, the state actually had a smaller number and lower percentage of Black freshman in 1996, than it did in 1976.In the final chapter, Greg Tanaka, Alexander W. Astin, and Bonous-Hammarath raise the questions: “Does diversity have a benefit? And, if diversity is important, how can the admissions process help create diverse campuses?” They make the important point that admissions decisions must consider the needs of the university as a community, not just individual needs, and that all students need skills that will enable them to become leaders in multi-ethnic societies.The authors in this volume reach entirely consistent conclusions — there is value to individuals and to society in providing quality education for all our students; diversity is important to the quality of the higher education experience; and the elimination of race-conscious policies will lead to the resegregation of college campuses. Universities will be pressed to continue to find creative ways, which may be more labor intensive and costly, to maintain diversity on campus.
— Bonnie Ortiz is the director of affirmative action for Penn State University.
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