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Creativity Replaces Racial Quotas at Colleges

Minority enrollment leapt to 31 percent this year at one California university.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 15, 1998



RIVERSIDE, CALIF.

When college students return next week to the University of California campus here in suburban Riverside, they will find something in greater abundance than on most campuses in America: minority faces.

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The number of underrepresented minorities has fallen in the nine-campus UC system for the past two years, the result of a 1995 vote in California to phase out affirmative action. But UC Riverside has seen a dramatic increase in every racial category.

"We have found that by making diversity a major priority in the way we approach recruitment and admissions, we can reflect the growing ethnic variety of California without affirmative-action policies," says Riverside Chancellor Raymond Orbach.

Attracting a fall class that reflects racial diversity is the stated goal of every public university in the land. But in recent years, lawsuits and political upheaval over affirmative action have produced a new climate of concern in several states. Worried about censure, litigation, and public condemnation, colleges are trying new ways to expand minority enrollments, without depending on admission quotas and race-designated scholarships.

Creating diversity

"Universities are keeping diversity of enrollment as a top priority without relying directly on race, per se," says Roselyn Hebert, spokeswoman for the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges.

Instead, they are finding ways to expand the minority pool by establishing outreach and preparatory programs that begin in elementary school. They are reaching into poorer ethnic neighborhoods and rural regions, and educating potential minority bases about financial aid and campus jobs. They are tapping into community-college systems for qualified transfer students. And they are taking creative license with admissions criteria - for instance, adding weight to extracurricular activities in which minorities participate - instead of relying solely on grade point averages and SAT scores.

"There is no one magic bullet here," says Mr. Orbach. "It's time-consuming, expensive, and requires long-term planning and commitment." The UCR minority enrollment - now 31 percent, an increase of 5 percent from last year - is being used as a prime example of what universities can achieve without quota structures.

Affirmative-action practices grew widespread after a 1978 US Supreme Court ruling, which held that colleges could use race as a factor to admit students to remedy past discrimination.

But a series of lawsuits in recent years have started to chip away at the standard, while public opinion has grown more wary of affirmative action. A federal Circuit court in Texas found that a white woman was unfairly passed over for admission to the University of Texas Law School in favor of two minority students who were less qualified.

A University of Maryland scholarship program for blacks was recently deemed unconstitutional, and high-profile suits are pending at Bowling Green University in Ohio and the University of Michigan, among many others. A Washington State citizen's initiative this November offers voters the chance to end affirmative action in public hiring, just as California did with Proposition 209 in 1996.

Colleges are "between a rock and a hard place," says Terry Hartle of the American Council on Education. "On one side, they are very committed to a diverse, heterogenous student body, and on the other, they are keenly aware that their programs are under scrutiny by legislatures and courts in a very difficult legal and political environment."

Public university officials say they are trying to promote diversity not just on ethical grounds, but feel that a racially diverse class provides a richer base of knowledge and culture. They are also considering their institutions' long-term financial stability. Irene Spero, executive director of federal/state relations for the College Board, says a main thrust for colleges in the new environment is to hold focus groups with parents, schools, and community organizations in poor areas.

Preparing students early

"Focus groups have been a gold mine for colleges in showing them how minority students need to prepare academically, financially for a college education," says Ms. Spero. "You have to begin preparing them as early as third and fourth grade."

Steve McCarthy, a spokesman at Penn State, says that "once our student pool has been made as diverse as possible, then the ultimate selections are color blind."

But "people have to remind themselves that despite all the negative press, affirmative action is still alive and well in most states," notes Scott Jaschik, spokesman for the Chronicle of Higher Education. While dozens of provisions to abolish affirmative action have been introduced, most have failed, he adds.

A just-released study by two former Ivy League presidents found that in the elite colleges, affirmative-action policies have created the backbone of the black middle class and have taught the value of integration to white classmates. Others say the push to embrace diversity has become a social crusade. "The attitude is diversity at any price," says Fred Lynch, author of "The Diversity Machine." "The elites favor these policies, and the masses don't," he adds. "When the masses begin to say, 'Hey we don't want this stuff,' the elites say 'OK,' and just work around them."