Alternatives to Race-Based Admissions Fail to Achieve Student Diversity, Studies Reveal

Posted By Candace Talmadge on April 7, 2016 at 2:50 pm
Alternatives to Race-Based Admissions Fail to Achieve Student Diversity, Studies Reveal

Not even hundreds of millions of dollars spent on alternatives to race-based college admissions policies have achieved significant diversity among entering college classes, according to four studies commissioned by Educational Testing Service, Princeton. N.J.

The findings are significant as the U.S. Supreme Court is considering, for the second time, a challenge to the University of Texas’s admission policies by Abigail Fisher, who applied and was rejected as a UT-Austin undergraduate in 2008. The case has been touted as a possible end to affirmative action in any form, although the dynamics of the court’s ultimate ruling may have changed with the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.

With Justice Elena Kagan recusing herself, seven justices will rule again in June on the validity of the claim by Fisher, who is white, that UT-Austin admitted less qualified undergraduates over her based solely on race. In 2013, the Supreme Court returned the case to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals for a rehearing, and that court ruled again in favor of UT. During the second round of Supreme Court oral arguments in December of 2015, some of the justices complained that they had little information about whether race-conscious admissions policies actually are effective.

“Researchers have a responsibility to try to provide a correct answer to a public issue,” like the effectiveness of race-based college admissions policies, said Michael Nettles, senior vice president of ETS’s Policy & Evaluation Research Center. That is why ETS decided to fund the studies, which were conducted in cooperation with the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.

After the first Fisher ruling, colleges and universities faced a very difficult hypothetical question, according to Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project. The institutions needed to find out if there were any other feasible ways to achieve diversity apart from racial criterion. The first Fisher ruling also ordered the colleges to show there is no other feasible way except using race to achieve diversity, which the court conceded is a compelling educational interest.

Alternatives to race include guaranteed admissions to a certain percentage of students, such as the plans used in California (top 9 percent of public and private high schools); Florida (top 20 percent of public high schools); and Texas (top 10 percent of public and private high schools). Another kind of alternative admissions criterion considers the social-economic status (SES) of applicants.

External factors lower impact of guaranteed admissions plans

One of the studies looked at guaranteed admissions plans in the three previously mentioned states and was conducted by Stella M. Flores of The Steinhardt Institute for Higher Education Policy at New York University and Catherine L. Horn of The Institute for Educational Policy Research and Evaluation at the University of Texas-Houston.

Orfield pointed out that in Texas, the guaranteed admissions plan relies on lower school racial segregation to achieve admissions diversity, which negatively affects African-American students. “In Texas, black students aren’t in black schools. They’re in Latino schools,” he explained. Thus the Texas percentage plan “works much better for Latinos, who are much more segregated in schools with other Latinos than blacks are with blacks.”

Even so, Flores and Horn found that the effectiveness of the Texas and other plans is due more to the soaring Latino populations in these states rather than the admission guarantees themselves. In addition, they found that Latinos are less likely to attend college despite rising numbers of Latino high school graduates and that underrepresented students who are eligible under a percent plan are more likely to enroll in a non-selective institution, due to economic circumstances. In other words, guaranteed admissions do not result in guaranteed enrollment of disadvantaged students, limiting this approach’s effectiveness at achieving student diversity across all college campuses.

Socio-economic diversity, an imperfect proxy for racial diversity

Another study was conducted by Sean F. Reardon Joseph B. Townsend of the Stanford Graduate School of Education and colleagues at the University of California, Irvine School of Education, the Brookings Institution, and George Washington University. To answer the question of whether SES can be used effectively to achieve significant racial diversity, researchers used national data to create complex statistical models that tracked iterations over periods of years.

With SES criteria, students cannot just be poor to be admitted. They have to be poor and qualified. “If you put these two criteria together, you don’t get much diversity of black and Latino students,” Orfield said.

The Reardon study models showed that using SES instead of race results in admitting a disproportionate number of Asian immigrant students, whose parents generally have high education levels, even if they temporarily have low incomes until they qualify for better-paying jobs. Asian students tend to go to good high schools that are not residentially segregated, unlike the schools African-American and Latinos attend.

The challenge of developing alternatives to asking about race

In the third study, Mark Long of the University of Washington looked at the information available on students from the U.S. Census and educational longitudinal surveys (ELS). This data can be used to devise questions for colleges to ask to help elicit a student’s minority status without asking about it directly. Orfield said that the paper looked at more than 200 data variables but only a handful were successful at identifying a student’s minority status.

From those few useful variables, one such question that might be put to candidates is, “What is the race of your best friend? “Given friendship patterns, this is the same as asking, ‘What is your race?’,” Orfield said. “Unless we choose something that is a pretty obvious proxy for race, it would not work very effectively for producing racial diversity.”

Professional school diversity takes a hit when race is not considered

A fourth study was by William C. Kidder at UC-Riverside and Patricia Gandara of UCLA’s Civil Rights Project and the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies. It looked specifically at the results of California’s two decades of efforts, costing hundreds of millions of dollars, to use criteria other than race after 1996’s passage of Proposition 209. After this ballot initiative, which banned consideration of race in college admissions, the state tried every possible alternative to racial admission criteria, such as SES, massive recruitment, and even asking private charities to reach out to minority admissions candidates. Nothing worked as well as racial criteria.

As one example of the failure of alternatives to race-based admissions, Kidder and Gandara found that following Prop. 209, the proportion of African-American and Latino graduates of the state’s professional schools dropped by half, from 20 percent in 1997 to 10 percent in 2010. They predicted that the effects of the ban may be felt especially in the availability of healthcare for the minority and low-income populations, which African-American and Latino physicians are far more likely to serve.

They concluded that “race neutral alternatives are costly, inefficient, and do not work at highly selective campuses.”

Elite undergraduate institutions, such as the Ivy League or top state colleges, and graduate schools for professions like law and medicine, which are highly competitive and selective, are most directly impacted by the controversy over race-based admission policies, pointed out Mark Killenbeck, a law professor at the University of Arkansas.

“The conclusion to all these studies is the same that most college and universities have made,” Orfield said. “There really is no feasible alternative” to race-based admissions to achieve true diversity.

Even if colleges and universities attain a diverse pool of incoming students, however, Killenbeck said they do not do a good job of taking pro-active steps once the students are on campus to take full advantage of students’ different backgrounds.

Candace Talmadge
Candace Talmadge has been a professional writer since 1976. She has been on staff or reported and written freelance for media that includes Adweek, Advertising Age, BusinessWeek, the Dallas Times Herald, the International Herald Tribune, The New York Times, and Reuters America.

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