Jennifer Gratz remembers the sharp anticipation she felt as a high school senior, ripping open the admissions letter from her chosen college - and her swift disappointment.
"Can we sue them?" she gamely quipped to her father. They managed a laugh. But the joke turned serious when Ms. Gratz, a National Honor Society student with a 3.79 grade point average, found that minority students with lower grades and test scores had been admitted to the same college that rejected her.
So in October, Gratz and another once-rejected student, Patrick Hamacher, sued the University of Michigan, charging its admissions policies illegally discriminated on the basis of race. Both individuals are white.
Their lawsuit was one of three this year, including one this month, attacking affirmative action policies in admissions. Those suits follow a landmark federal court ruling last year that made race preferences in college admissions illegal in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
The impact of this legal trend reaches well beyond those states and public universities that were sued, observers say. In fact, the biggest eventual influence may not be on public universities but on the nation's most elite private colleges and universities and their carefully cultivated rainbow of racial diversity.
"We're watching carefully the development of these cases across the US and we're concerned," says Willis Stetson Jr., dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school in Philadelphia. "We're not viewing this in any cavalier manner."
Frank Wu, a professor at Howard University School of Law in Washington, agrees there is cause for concern. "The assault on affirmative action in public universities will almost certainly affect private universities, including the prestigious 'Ivy League' universities," he says. "This will happen sooner, not later."
Thanks in part to race-based "tip factors" in admissions policies, the Ivy League and other highly competitive colleges nationwide have since the 1960s turned into scholarly enclaves of ethnic diversity, observers say. But it is something those colleges must struggle to maintain.
"The top 25 schools are all competing for the same kids," says Michele Hernandez, former assistant director of admissions at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., who wrote a book on Ivy League admissions procedures (see story, right). "None of those schools wants to have only 2 percent black enrollment at the end of the year. It's not a quota - but Dartmouth just does not want to have 2 percent black enrollment while Harvard has 8 percent."
Such intense competition causes top private colleges to give breaks to some minority applicants that other applicants do not get, she says. And Thomas Kane, an economist at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government who has studied the demand-supply relationship between colleges and minorities, agrees.
"You will find it is the elite schools, the top 20 percent, that are doing most of the racial preference," he says. He attributes this phenomenon to "supply and demand" - a few high-performing minority college applicants being chased by many top schools.
Standing firm at the top
So far the nation's top colleges are standing firm on affirmative action. As the Association of American Universities stated recently: There is a "continuing need to take into account a wide range of considerations - including ethnicity, race, and gender - as we evaluate the students whom we select for admission."
Private college officials rush to point out, too, that their admissions procedures are much different than the public universities that have been sued. They involve individual assessment that incorporates race as just one factor in an overall portrait. Also, they point out, they are private.
The issue of federal funds
Yet almost all private colleges also receive millions of dollars of federally guaranteed student loans and research funding. Any institution receiving federal funds cannot discriminate on basis of race, says Terence Pell, a lawyer with the Washington-based Center for Individual Rights, the law firm spearheading several suits.
Top college officials worry most about future court rulings mirroring the one in Texas last year. In that case, Hopwood v. University of Texas Law School, the US Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled race-based preferences in college admissions decisions were illegal in the three states. The impact was swift - even on private schools.
At Rice University in Houston, an elite school with about 2,600 students known as the "Harvard of the South," the Hopwood decision forced it to entirely eliminate race as a factor in admissions and financial-aid decisions.
"A much smaller percentage of minorities are accepting our offer of admission," says Janet McNeill, a spokeswoman. "We have to think that the environment created by Hopwood took away the welcome mat."
This year, the school has experienced an almost 33 percent drop in the number of underrepresented minorities, according to the Rice admissions office.
Harith Nelson, president of the Black Student Association at Rice, says the drop is noticeable.
"We talk to the prospective students and try to give them a good time," Mr. Nelson says. "But once they go and visit some place like Harvard that has more black students and will give them more money, they don't come back."
In California, as well, there has been a big drop in minority enrollment at several elite schools following the 1995 University of California Board of Regents decision to ban the use of race in admissions decisions.
"If there were ever a decision as sweeping as the Texas decision in the New England circuit, it could have a devastating effect on the affirmative-action admissions policies of the Ivies," says Gary Orfield, who teaches education and social policy at Harvard.
A recent conclave at Harvard involving 40 college presidents, constitutional experts, and government officials plotted strategies to defend affirmative action and promote the idea that diversity is required to enrich students' education.
"We are going to continue to meet with our university lawyers," says Dean Stetson of the University of Pennsylvania. "We're going to make sure that we're prepared for whatever comes down the line."
How VIPs and Athletes Gain Admission
* Did Chelsea Clinton get admitted to Stanford University because her grades and test scores were compelling - or was it a smidgen because the school wanted the president's daughter to attend?
Certainly the First Daughter has a reputation as an excellent student. But with the national mood running in favor of lawsuits attacking the affirmative-action admissions policies of competitive colleges, some observers point out that "tip factors" are often used to help nonminorities gain entry into academia's hallowed halls.
At such US colleges, athletes, children of alumni ("legacies"), and VIPs all get a leg-up in the admissions process - just as some minorities do.
Michele Hernandez, a former assistant dean of admissions at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., points up a few of these discrepancies in a new book, "A is for Admission: The Insider's Guide to Getting Into the Ivy League and Other Top Colleges" (Warner).
"People say minorities take up all that space," she says in an interview. "But they're not. What about the athletes or legacies?... The schools help [legacies] for practical reasons. Their families give money."
Ms. Hernandez writes that Dartmouth's classes of 1997 to 2000 include:
* Sons and daughters of Dartmouth-educated parents admitted at about a 40 percent rate (40.8 to 46.1) of all who applied - about twice the university's overall rate of admission of about 20 percent.
* Athletes (most white) are admitted at a rate of about 60 percent.
* Black students were admitted at about a 50 percent rate; Hispanics at about 25 percent; native Americans at about 30 percent.
The number of students admitted from the first two groups far outnumber the number of minority students, she writes.
"We work very hard to recruit a diverse student body," says Karl Furstenberg, Dartmouth's dean of admissions. "The book is somewhat misleading because it oversimplifies a very complex process."
Still, nearly 25 percent of admitted freshmen were athletes or legacies, compared to 13 percent for minorities. Lesser VIPs than Chelsea would be a shoo-in, Hernandez says.