Campus diversity's new math

California boosts racial mix without affirmative action.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As courts and conservatives chip away at affirmative action, educators seeking to ensure diversity have increasingly turned to new social and economic criteria – from where students live to what language is spoken at home – to decide who goes to which school.

This fall, the opposite sides of San Francisco Bay are offering perhaps the most comprehensive look yet at how such policies work, from kindergarten through college.

Predictably, criticism is widespread. San Francisco public schools' "diversity index," which places children in schools based in part on family income or native language – but not race – led one neighborhood to consider seceding from the district.

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Across the bay, an admissions initiative at the University of California at Berkeley, which gauges life challenges as well as report cards in a "comprehensive review," has been called a back door for racial preferences.

Yet there is evidence that the programs are bringing some measure of diversity – without running afoul of the law. Moreover, a new kind of diversity is emerging, with a wider range of rich and poor, as well as more well-rounded students of every race – rather than just good test takers.

Given California's position as a vanguard, the Bay Area's trials are being charted by educators nationwide. What's clear so far, in the programs' intricate formulas to weigh each socioeconomic factor, is that maintaining diversity will be far more complex than black and white.

"This is the affirmative action of the 21st century," says Richard Kahlenberg, an education expert at the Century Foundation in New York. "Communities are looking to keep some sort of diversity, but must turn away from race-based policies."

From race-based policy to 'comprehensive review'

It's an issue that the University of California has dealt with since state voters banned affirmative action in 1996. When Proposition 209 took effect, minority admissions to the state's three elite campuses – Berkeley, Los Angeles, and San Diego – plummeted. At Berkeley, the percentage of African-Americans, Latinos, and native Americans admitted in one year fell from 25.3 to 11.0 percent.

Since then, however, the numbers have crept up. Officially, the University of California insists that comprehensive review has nothing to do with this. All private colleges look beyond academic transcripts, the university says, and it's doing the same.

Yet some officials acknowledge that any policy that affects those with hardships and economic difficulties is bound to have an overlapping effect on minorities – even if it's colorblind. "In that sense, it does help underrepresented minorities, though it does not consider race," says Richard Black, an admissions official at Berkeley.

Critics look at the statistics and are more skeptical. Berkeley has used a form of comprehensive review for four years, and blacks, Latinos, and native Americans have made their strongest comeback here. At San Diego and Los Angeles, where comprehensive review was new this year, percentages of those minorities jumped more than two percentage points – the biggest increase since the ban. "My fear is that universities may be using this as a way to take race into account," says Linda Chavez of the Center for Equal Opportunity in Sterling, Va. "The numbers aren't proof, but they do raise some suspicions."

On the Berkeley campus, though, there's hardly the sense that minorities are resurgent. Students at the Latino academic union on a recent day had never heard of comprehensive review. Lisa Walker, who went to Berkeley before the ban and now works here to foster cross-cultural interaction, feels that ban on affirmative action remains more potent than any admissions change.

"People don't talk about race anymore," says Ms. Walker. "The changes in numbers haven't changed the culture shift that happened after 209."

Instead, high school guidance counselors say, the Big Three are finding diversity by bringing in a broader palette of students. "We've had students who ... maybe have not been the best students, but have been tremendous human beings and you know they're going to go on and be successful at Berkeley, and they have gotten in," says Rory Bled, a college adviser at Berkeley High here.

The grade-point average at Berkeley has gone up slightly since it began comprehensive review, notes Mr. Black, the Berkeley admissions officer.

In San Francisco's public schools, district officials are likewise hoping for improved achievement. To them, the diversity index is a way to ensure fair proportions of advantaged and disadvantaged students at each school. Through yearly surveys, the district learns about things such as economic status and parents' education, then places students to maximize socioeconomic diversity.

Tension between diversity and parents' choice

But to many Asian-Americans, the diversity index – like comprehensive review – seems specifically designed to limit their numbers in the best schools.

Although the program tries to keep students at the nearest school, the diversity index sometimes sends them across town. With many of the best schools located in Asian-American communities, a revolt has risen. A computer glitch worsened the problem, and the local supervisor in San Francisco's heavily Asian Sunset neighborhood threatened to break off from the district entirely.

Yet above the din, there are voices of promise. Some 94 percent of children were placed at one of the schools their parents listed as a preference, and the index "is doing what it is saying it will do," says Sandra Halladey of the local activist group, Parents for Public Schools. It's just weighted too heavily toward diversity, she says, with not enough emphasis on parents' choice.

The process, she knows, is difficult. But, as the first such experiment in a major metropolitan hub, it's also important. Says Mr. Kahlenberg: "San Francisco is a large district that people pay attention to."

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