In a social experiment with far-reaching implications, a growing number of colleges and universities are testing new ways to screen student applicants without resorting to the racial-preference systems of the past.
The move by some of America's top institutions doesn't mark a return to the lily-white campuses of the 1950s. Nor is it a complete abandonment of affirmative action.
Instead, it marks a reinvention of the college-admissions process at a time when higher education is under intense pressure from reverse-discrimination lawsuits - and the public remains divided over the best way to ensure diversity in American life.
The new ideas vary widely - from "indexes" that take into account a prospective student's background as well as grades, to the use of Legos as a way to measure problem-solving skills. Though controversial, the initiatives will likely help shape who attends colleges in the 21st century - and could hold lessons for other institutions struggling with how to achieve racial diversity without taking into account a person's skin color.
For now, though, nobody knows whether these "color-blind" approaches to admissions screening will even withstand legal scrutiny. The Supreme Court has ruled that systems geared to achieve a pre-ordained racial result are not acceptable.
But nearly everyone agrees something, some test or procedure, is needed to maintain diversity on campus - and that SAT scores, grades, and class rank alone won't do it.
"Schools across the country are scrambling for alternatives," says Terence Pell, a lawyer at the Center for Individual Rights in Washington, which is counseling plaintiffs in several reverse-discrimination suits. "It's in their best interest to experiment with and develop alternatives before they get into an expensive and divisive lawsuit."
Among the new "colorblind" criteria colleges are looking at:
*Strivers index. The Educational Testing Service, which administers the SAT, is developing an index to supplement the traditional SAT score. If deployed, it would produce an expected SAT score for students based on socioeconomic background. A college might accept a student who didn't do well on the SAT, but got a good striver number.
*Merit index. Similar to the striver test, the merit index would would compare how well students did on their SAT with the average SAT scores of all students at their high schools. Devised at Indiana University in Bloomington, it could result in a college accepting a student from an inner-city school with a low SAT score but high merit index, compared to a suburban student with a high SAT but low merit number.
*Adaptability index. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is funding a $1.9 million study to see if it can identify students with initiative, persistence, analytical, and negotiating skills.
This one would include the Legos. During the three-hour test, groups of eight to 10 students move from station to station for discussion and problem-solving.
At one, they might be given a card with a controversial topic like the death penalty and asked to debate it. At another, they're supposed to build a duplicate of a Lego robot. Researchers score each student.
"We don't even care if they assemble the robot," says Deborah Bial, a doctoral student at Harvard University who created the "Bial-Dale Adaptability Index." "We want to observe what goes into the process - the qualities the students reveal."
So far, nine colleges and universities have signed on to try the test. "We see this as a research initiative," says John Romano, vice provost at Pennsylvania State University. "If it proves out, it may be a useful tool among many in maintaining campus diversity without race criteria."
The largest-scale experiments are going on in Texas, California, Washington, and soon in Florida. There, courts and voter initiatives have blocked using race criteria in the admissions process.
Each state saw a drop in minority applicants at public universities after race preferences were dropped. So, under pressure to maintain campus diversity, each (except Washington) pushed ahead with new nonrace-based measures to ensure a diversity on state campuses.
Texas, for instance, has begun automatically accepting the top 10 percent of high school graduates at state colleges and universities. Similarly, in California, where a ballot initiative struck down affirmative action, it's the top 4 percent. Earlier this month under threat of a similar voter initiative, Florida's governor announced a plan to guarantee university admission to the top 20 percent of high-schoolers.
Whether these statewide experiments are succeeding isn't clear. Early signs in Texas and California suggest the blanket admissions policy are helping. At the University of Texas at Austin, minority admissions of African-Americans and Hispanics have rebounded somewhat.
And numbers of Hispanics and African-Americans increased markedly this year compared to last year at three major California schools - UC Berkeley, UCLA, and UC San Diego.
Still, both groups remain far below 1997 levels as a percentage of the overall student population. Latinos, for instance, were 17 percent of all freshmen in 1997, but just 10 percent this year at UC Berkeley.
"It is misleading to simply look at the raw numbers," says Harry Pachon of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, a think tank on Hispanic issues in Claremont, Calif.
Opponents of affirmative action, however, say that the numbers show California schools are learning how to run their admissions without race preferences.
"Everyone assumed schools in California would get white," says Mr. Pell. "In fact they've adapted to race-blind admissions and developed new strategies that have resulted in diverse student bodies."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society