Access to equal opportunity distinguishes and strengthens the United States. The country has aggressively pursued this ideal over the past 50 years with federal policies and court decisions that opened colleges and universities to ethnic and racial populations that had historically been vastly underrepresented.
Affirmative action, the federal program that was most influential in helping build diverse campuses, has been slowly but demonstrably eroded over the past 10 years through a combination of statewide referenda and now the latest Supreme Court decision limiting the use of race in school choice.
These incursions have occurred despite the conviction of a vast array of business leaders, government officials, and university administrators that for the past 35 years, affirmative action has been a remarkably successful tool in the quest for equity in access to higher education.
Five key states – collectively enrolling over half a million students each year – currently are operating under severe constraints regarding the use of race as a factor in admissions decisions. The electorate in three states – California, Washington, and Michigan – has emphatically voted to abolish the use of affirmative action in public university admissions. Two other populous states – Texas and Florida – have implemented admissions processes that have limited or eliminated the use of affirmative action. On the horizon, we can see efforts to eradicate affirmative action being mounted in additional states for the 2008 election cycle.
What had been a national policy is being dismantled, state by state. Each state that has abandoned affirmative action has had to ascertain separately its legal ability and the boundaries that would allow it to foster diversity. Because each state's context differs, America is developing fragmented solutions to the challenge of maintaining a diverse student body, a challenge that many courts continue to see as a "compelling interest" for the nation.
And because the US has gone from a national policy to a set of disparate solutions, it faces a conundrum: Even as university leaders in post-affirmative-action states support the goals of a highly diversified student body, they must show that without the tool of affirmative action, they can still build a diverse, talented, highly competitive student population.
For university presidents and administrators like myself, who have grown up in a world where affirmative action was solidly embraced, it has been an awakening to find ourselves leading institutions that must now accomplish diversity without using the tool of affirmative action. I recognize the significant role that policy has played, and I do not wish its elimination where it is still permitted. But without it, we must work very hard to increase all types of diversity at our institutions.
In the states that have had to create new policies in the absence of affirmative action, there have been successes and disappointments, and we have seen that it can take years to begin to recover from the elimination of this tool.
What we discovered in Washington was that there are other ways to ensure diversity and access to higher education, particularly by taking socioeconomic factors into account. One essential element was undertaking an intensive effort to encourage more students from disadvantaged backgrounds to apply to the university. This meant convincing them that there was indeed a place for them at an institution like ours, that they were welcome, and that they could be successful here.
Additionally, we had to find a way to take economic considerations off the table. Many universities, including Washington, have instituted programs ensuring that students from low and lower-middle income families will be able to attend college tuition-free, creating a compelling new approach to diversity and recognizing the impact of economic standing.
We have also adopted a holistic admissions review process, a labor-intensive enterprise that is well worth the effort. The more we can know about each individual student who applies, the better informed our admissions decisions are. The results so far are promising: The academic level of our entering students is as good as it had been prior to holistic review, and the student body is more diverse.
All of us – whether or not we still can use affirmative action – need to pool our collective experience and data to establish the best ways of being accessible to applicants from all strata of our society. We know that critical elements include increased outreach, improvements to financial aid, and holistic admission models. We have been told by corporate leaders, by elected officials, and by the armed forces, that more diverse organizations are better organizations. Indeed, our own experiences in overseeing universities demonstrates this fact. Entry to our universities and colleges provides the opportunity for many to rise economically and improve their lives and add to the vigor of our nation. It is a key to our future success and should be accessible to all.
Mark A. Emmert is president of the University of Washington.