Enhancing Equity and Excellence at Public Universities

University Testing

The number of private colleges embracing “test-score optional” undergraduate admissions policies, in part to promote diversity, grows ever larger (see Examiner, Spring 2000). But public universities continue to struggle with how to maintain balanced student bodies in a political climate where test scores are alleged to measure “merit.” The problems are particularly difficult in jurisdictions where bans on affirmative action have been adopted by voters or ordered by courts.


U. Michigan Affirmative Action Policies Upheld
In a striking victory for affirmative action policies, U.S. District Court Judge Patrick Duggan has upheld the University of Michigan’s current practice of considering race in undergraduate admissions. Ruling on the basis of facts all parties accepted, Judge Duggan concluded that current practices were “narrowly tailored” to promote racial diversity without discriminating against white applicants. He did, however, rule that the U. Michigan admissions system in place before 1999 rated minority applicants by different standards, effectively reserving seats for some groups of students in violation of federal law.


All applicants are now rated on a 150-point scale, based largely on grades and test scores, with 20 points awarded to those from underrepresented minority backgrounds. Extra points are also given to other groups such as children of alumni/ae, athletes, and students from low-income families. Thus, race is only one “plus” factor of several considered. Plaintiffs, backed by the conservative Center for Individual Rights, are expected to appeal.


Meanwhile, a full-fledged trial has begun on a parallel suit against the University of Michigan Law School. In this case, witnesses explicitly addressed the issue of bias in the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) as well as the inferior quality of education in the public elementary and high schools serving minority students in the state.


FairTest continues to assist counsel from the civil rights and pro-affirmative action organizations which intervened in the cases by helping to identify witnesses, examine data, and research background information.


U. Washington Law School Admissions Upheld
The 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has ruled that the consideration of applicants’ racial backgrounds by the University of Washington Law School did not violate federal law. Three white plaintiffs had alleged that minority students with lower LSAT scores and college grades displaced them.


The decision is likely to have little impact in Washington State because voters there have approved an affirmative action ban modeled on California’s Proposition 209. However, public universities in the other states covered by the 9th Circuit—Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, and Oregon—can pursue race conscious policies.


The Center for Individual Rights, which also represented Washington State plaintiffs, has indicated that it may appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court


“Top 10%” Texas Plan Continues Success
A recent newspaper column by the President of the University of Texas (UT) at Austin provides statistical ammunition for equity advocates who support policies that automatically grant undergraduate admission to students with grades near the top of their high school classes.


Writing in the Houston Chronicle, Larry R. Faulkner, president of the state’s flagship campus, explains that Texas’ “Top 10 Percent Law” has “enabled us to diversify enrollment at UT Austin with talented students who succeed.” Faulkner counters critics’ claims that percentage admissions programs exclude students who were “better qualified” on the basis of test scores, noting “top-10-percent students at every level of the SAT earn grade point averages that exceed those of non-top-10-percent students, having SAT scores that are 200 to 300 points higher.”


Under the “Top 10 Percent Law,” African American and Latino enrollment at UT Austin has rebounded to levels in effect before the 1996 Hopwood decision barred Texas state officials from practicing any form of affirmative action (see Examiner, Fall 1999). According to Faulkner, minority students now have better grade point averages and higher retention rates than in 1996.


Based on the evidence, Faulkner concludes, “Strong academic performance in high school is an even better predictor of success in college than standardized test scores.”


Though minorities' public college enrollment remains lower than their portion of the state’s population, the value of the “Top Ten Percent Law” is also demonstrated by contrasting the diversity of the undergraduate student body with that in the Texas system’s graduate schools where no revisions in admissions policy have been made. At UT Austin Law School, for example, African American and Latino enrollment remains far below pre-Hopwood levels.


State law school officials sought to address this problem by petitioning the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to throw out previous rulings and allow the consideration of applicants’ racial backgrounds to offset the impacts of past discrimination. But a three-judge appeals court panel let the Hopwood decision stand. Officials have asked for a rehearing before the full 14-member 5th Circuit and are considering whether to seek a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.


Legislative advocates, such as Rep. Irma Rangel, sponsor of the “Top Ten Percent” plan, are looking for ways to reduce the emphasis on test scores at the graduate school level at the same time they push for more aggressive undergraduate recruitment plans. One proposal, first raised by FairTest in invited testimony before the House Higher Education Committee, which Rep. Rangel heads, would give automatic graduate school admission to students who were in the top ten percent of their college classes.


California Considers Further Easing of Test Score Requirement
A faculty committee has recommended that the University of California (UC) further de-emphasize the role of test scores in determining whom to admit to its nine campuses. The move follows a proposal by UC President Richard C. Atkinson that provisional UC undergraduate admission be granted to the top 12.5 percent of students from every high school in the state. At present, students in the top four percent of each high school graduating class are guaranteed a UC seat if they complete specified college preparatory courses. The current policy has had a modest positive impact on diversity (see Examiner, Spring 2000), in part by signaling the state’s interest in recruiting minorities.


Atkinson’s proposal would require high-ranking students who had not completed the UC-required courses to enroll first in a community college. Students who passed the necessary subjects would automatically be allowed to enroll at one of the UC schools. According to Atkinson’s projections, this process would open UC doors to about 12,000 students, more than a third from under-represented minority groups.


Meanwhile, current members of the state Board of Regents are organizing to overturn the ban on affirmative action in admissions adopted by their predecessors in 1995. Passage of a repeal resolution could have important symbolic value since California was the first state to act against the conscious consideration of race in admissions. It would, however, have no practical significance because Proposition 209, a broader ban on affirmative action endorsed by a majority of state voters in 1996, remains in effect.


None of the reform proposals directly addresses minority enrollment levels at graduate and professional schools, which remain depressed on many UC campuses due to the affirmative action bans. In 1996, for example, African Americans and Latinos constituted 18.2 percent of students entering UC-Berkeley’s Boalt Hall Law School. These groups only make up 9.3 percent of the current first year class. The trend at the UCLA School of Law is similar: there are now only 33 African Americans and Latinos in a first-year class of 305 compared with 64 in 1996 when the entering class size was identical.


Certainly increasing the number of African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and new Asian immigrants in the university’s undergraduate pipeline would be a positive step. But much more needs to be done at both the college and graduate school levels to ensure that the UC system serves California’s ever more diverse population. FairTest continues to consult with local civil rights groups and faculty members seeking further admissions reforms to advance equity and excellence.