The Georgia students on this recruiter's mind

Colleges try new ways to recruit minorities as high court takes up issue of race-sensitive admissions.

Bustling beneath a sculpture of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee carved into a nearby hill, the little town of Stone Mountain is a testament to the New South's growing black middle class.

With a Confederate past and a preened-cul-de-sac present, the town is also at the forefront of the nation's struggle over the role of race in college admissions.

It's a place that James Watkins rolls through regularly as a recruiter for the University of Georgia, in search of promising black applicants. He goes to high-school sports games and talks about music and sports in classrooms with students as young as 13. His goal: to encourage as many of them as possible to apply to the state's flagship public university.

Such marketing efforts - representing a softer approach to attaining campus diversity than giving minority applicants an automatic leg up in the admissions office - have been expanding nationwide even before the US Supreme Court decided to take up the constitutionality of so-called "race-sensitive" admissions policies.

The court last week agreed to hear two cases relating to policies at the University of Michigan. A ruling next year against the university could spell the end of racial preferences that still hold sway there and at most other US colleges where applicants compete for admission.

One university's successful experiment

But already, experiments such as Georgia's point down a different path to diversity. This academic year, the first since a statewide ban on racial preferences took effect, 13 percent of University of Georgia (UGA) freshmen are racial minorities, a slight gain from the prior year.

Supporters say the uptick, while small, shows that diversity can be nurtured without setting up an admissions process that gives preferences to minorities.

"Aggressive recruitment is great," says US Civil Rights Commissioner Abigail Thernstrom, who is a critic of affirmative action in college admissions.

"If you're reaching students who can do well in college and should be in college, then you're only widening the pool, and we all believe in that stuff."

UGA's recruitment drive is just one alternative - and one of the most radical for its simplicity - among several departures from traditional affirmative action that have sprung up in the past few years.

Texas guarantees admission to state schools for students who finish in the top 10 percent of their high-school class (aiding students from largely-minority high schools.) California asks admissions officers to consider applicants' socioeconomic backgrounds, favoring those who have faced hard times.

Yet even this approach, though ostensibly beneficial to minorities, has its fair share of critics. Here in Georgia, some worry that the recruiting efforts focus too heavily on "easy" targets such as Stone Mountain and too little on developing applicants from poorer black communities.

Already, Stephenson High School here in Stone Mountain has become one of Watkins' prime recruiting grounds. Middle-class values are evident in subdivisions with names like Chanterelle Woods, and most adult blacks here have college degrees

The high school now sends about a dozen graduates down "University Highway" to UGA in Athens every fall.

Stephenson grad Chloe Thompson, for one, was groomed early for college. In high school she played soccer, tooted on the trombone in the school's marching band, and studied arduously to score high on her SATs. UGA "recruited heavily at my school, doing things like having parent nights and giving out T-shirts," says Ms. Thompson, sitting in her room at UGA's crowded Creswell Hall dorm.

Backlash against affirmative action

Unlike UGA, American universities often weigh minority applicants in a different scale, giving them an advantage for their race. The result is increased diversity, and opportunities for many from disadvantaged backgrounds.

But the system also draws criticism by setting a higher hurdle for qualified whites or Asian-Americans.

Moreover, many African-Americans resent the view that they have gained admission based on skin color, not merit.

"I'd be insulted if someone told me I got into this school because of my race," says UGA sophomore Shaun Foster, cutting a sharp figure in a tan leather coat and a shell necklace. A track star from Gainesville, Ga., he didn't receive any extra points for his race.

UGA officials say it's too early to tell whether the new recruitment push is the reason minority enrollments are inching up at UGA.

A debate still in the balance

Nationwide, diversity-boosting experiments are young enough, and the results murky enough, that both sides in the debate can claim vindication.

Defenders of more overt preferences point to a plunge in African-American enrollment at top-tier schools such as the University of California, Berkeley. Advocates of new policies say overall diversity is growing in many experimenting states.

Nationally, minorities made up 28 percent of enrollment in 1999, up from 20 percent in 1990.

"I'm not sure all these new programs are equally successful on racial diversity" as affirmative action,says Curt Levey, the director of legal affairs at the Center for Individual Rights in Washington. "But I do think they're more successful in the fact that they're much more within the bounds of the law."

Still, some worry that an end to affirmative action in admissions could sharply reduce the number of minorities on many campuses. "Flagship universities like ours have a broader social responsibility, and that is to create leaders for all the communities in our state," says Gene Nichol, dean of the University of North Carolina's law school. "I'm not sure we could do that" without the school's race-sensitive admission standards.

Back at Stephenson High School, a crush of students jostle as their moms arrive to pick them up in minivans and Mercedes cars. Looking out over the sea of dark faces, school guidance counselor Bobbi Neal says she largely supports UGA's new admissions system.

By starting early, the intensive recruiting effort prepares younger students for the inevitable hardships of college, she says, while the application process holds them to a high standard for admission. "They make it clear to students," she says, "that color doesn't have anything to do with their ability to perform."

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