Court Case Causes University of Michigan Admissions Fallout
Thomas Bray, The Detroit News, Feb. 15
A 23 percent decline in minority admissions to the University of Michigan so far this year is being blamed on a hostile environment created by last year’s bitter battle over racial preferences in the Supreme Court.
The court threw out the university’s affirmative action system at the undergraduate level as too “mechanical,” though it permitted the continuation of the law school’s admission system on grounds it offered more individualized review of applicants. The decline in undergraduate admissions is likely to be cited as evidence of the supposedly destructive effects of a proposed referendum in Michigan — for which supporters are trying to gather signatures — banning the use of race in jobs and admissions.
Before defenders of affirmative action begin proclaiming catastrophe, it should be noted that the Michigan experience is very similar to that of top state schools in California and Washington state after successful ballot initiatives there in the 1990s barred the use of race-based preferences. Minority enrollment in both state systems has grown, though much of California’s rise in minority enrollment has occurred at less selective institutions. Once the shock of a merit-based system wears off, minorities apparently are rising to the challenge.
There may be other reasons for the upturn in minority enrollments in these states. The admissions departments of California and Washington universities have been accused of inventing proxies for race that, in effect, have allowed them to resume their sorting by skin color and ethnicity.
Last fall, the Los Angeles Times published a confidential study by the University of California Board of Regents showing that 381 students, mostly from low-performing city schools, who had scored less than 1,000 on the Scholastic Assessment Test 1 had been accepted for the 2002 fall semester at the elite Berkeley campus. Meanwhile, 641 students who had nearly perfect scores were turned away.
Washington’s universities have resorted to extensive — and expensive — outreach programs to cultivate applicants from areas of the state most heavily populated by minority students. A lawsuit before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to test the vague rules the Supreme Court created for using race as only one among many factors in considering applications. How far can a state go in helping minorities before it falls afoul of the high court’s ban on racial quotas?
On U-M’s Web site, for example, a sample application form invites high school students to describe (in 250 words or less) their experience with “cultural diversity.” There are also optional boxes for disclosing race and income.
Such an approach is likely to provide admissions counselors all the clues they need to reach the desired numbers — though, ironically, the heightened use of essays and the sheer complexity of the application form may be one reason applications are down so sharply at Michigan.
What the experience of California, Washington and now Michigan most clearly shows is the need for expanding the pool of qualified applicants. That means serious reform of the K-12 educational system, including expanded school choice systems that break the monopoly grip of union-controlled, results-averse public schools. Voters in Michigan rejected a voucher referendum in 2000, but backers, prominently including former Amway executive Dick DeVos, have turned to other states in the hopes of achieving some breakthroughs.
Without more diversity in our K-12 school systems, DeVos and others persuasively argue, it will be difficult to achieve lasting diversity on our college campuses — except through the use of increasingly sneaky techniques aimed at circumventing the Supreme Court’s modest restraints on the use of race. And that likely may add support for the kind of voter outrage that led to landslide approval of initiatives in California and Washington — and now possibly Michigan.