When black and Hispanic enrollments fell to near zero at law schools in California and Texas, many Americans thought they were seeing the future of higher education in an era of affirmative-action roll-backs. The University of Texas Law School enrolled only four new African-American students and Boalt Hall law school at the University of California, Berkeley, only one.
But it's becoming clear that the law schools' experience is not representative of higher education, or graduate education, generally. Medical schools and most other graduate programs in the University of California system, for instance, have not seen anything like the same drop-off in minority enrollments one year into the restructured admissions standards, which exclude ethnic preferences. In the med schools, the numbers of black and Hispanic students have remained steady, or increased slightly.
The weight given standardized test scores is a major factor affecting these trends. Law schools, and business schools, for example, emphasize such scores as the best predictors of students' likely success. But test results are less central in medical schools. Some of these, such as the med school at the University of California, Davis, continue to stress outreach to underserved communities in their admissions process.
One result of this will be a vigorous reassessment of the role of standardized tests in college enrollments - especially in California, where the elimination of traditional affirmative action takes effect at the critical undergraduate level next fall. Administrators no longer allowed to admit students on the basis of ethnicity may be inclined to deemphasize SAT scores for all students in order to give added weight to other factors, including past academic achievement and family background.
Historically, blacks, Hispanics (and women, for that matter) have scored somewhat lower on the standard entrance exams than their white, male counterparts.
The ethnic issue aside, shrinking emphasis on test scores makes sense. Today, test-preparation and taking has become something of an industry, raising fresh questions about the exams' ability to gauge innate learning ability - and about the fairness of the whole process, since those who can pay for elaborate preparation have an obvious advantage.