Affirmative inaction

February 02, 2003

THE BUSH administration's "race-neutral" alternative to affirmative action in college admissions has an appealing name, "affirmative access." But in reality it is a covert means of building minority enrollment that's unfair and could be harmful to the students it's supposed to help.

Several states are giving the Bush plan a try. It guarantees college admission to a percentage of each high school's graduates with the highest grades, regardless of race. In President Bush's home state of Texas, the top 10 percent get in. In Florida, where Mr. Bush's brother Jeb is governor, it's the top 20 percent. In California, where voters banned affirmative action in 1996, it's the highest 4 percent.

Because such plans guarantee admission at state universities to graduates of low-achieving and predominantly minority schools, proponents of percentage plans maintain that they boost minority enrollment without using race as a factor in the admissions decision.

In fact, the percentage plan in Texas has had no effect on black enrollment at the Austin flagship campus, while African-American enrollment at the University of California, Berkeley declined by a third between 1996 and 2001.

Percentage plans are an attractive idea, but one that is simplistic, a disguised version of affirmative action that denies its real intent -- and that in fact still discriminates.

For example: If a 10 percent plan were to be launched in Maryland, a black graduate of one of Baltimore's inner-city high schools with a 3.8 grade-point average -- near the top of the class -- and a combined SAT score of 800 (of a possible 1,600) would be guaranteed admission to the University of Maryland. A few miles away in the mostly white suburbs, a senior with a 1,400 SAT score and a 3.9 grade point average -- but with a class rank at the 11th percentile -- wouldn't enjoy the guarantee.

This is even more unfair to the white student than the treatment alleged by the plaintiffs who were denied admission in the University of Michigan affirmative action cases now before the Supreme Court. Those students were judged by a point system that takes into account a number of factors other than race or class rank, including their high school's academic quality and their essay and personal achievements.

Percentage plans are unfair to many minorities, too, who would be showing up at state universities unprepared for an academic regimen that most colleges and universities have strengthened in recent years. Many of these students would require expensive remedial work, lest affirmative access become affirmative wash-out. Michigan's carefully tailored affirmative action plan, in contrast, identifies academically qualified minority students.

Another problem with this fakery is that it would encourage students of all races to stay in lousy high schools -- or even to transfer from demanding schools to easy ones.

President Bush's underfunded No Child Left Behind Act gives the states a dozen years to lift all student groups, including African-Americans and Hispanics, to a common level of academic proficiency. It's a lofty goal. If the nation's secondary schools come close to reaching it, percentage plans for admission to higher education might make sense because the playing field would be level. But until then, they're a dishonest alternative to affirmative action.

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