News Column

Affirmative Action on Trial

September 2003, HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine

Holly Ocasio Rizzo

Already struggling to raise minority enrollment, the nation's law and business schools earlier this year braced themselves for the end of affirmative-action admissions policies. But it didn't happen. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the practice of affirmative action at the University of Michigan Law School. At the same time, the court struck down a plan giving Hispanics and other underrepresented minorities extra points toward undergraduate admission, calling instead for evaluating applications individually to determine whether race or ethnicity should be a deciding factor.

The decision has exerted a mixed impact in the states with the largest Hispanic populations. The University of Texas says it will restore racial preference at its graduate and professional schools. California maintains its voter-mandated prohibition against such admissions.

The State University of New York system has announced it will maintain "general guidelines encouraging a student population that is rich in its diversity but [without] specific quotas or hard numerical thresholds." Likewise, officials in Florida have opted to leave the state's One Florida diversity initiative relatively intact.

The court's two Michigan decisions give educators new flexibility in deciding the importance of race and ethnicity in admissions. In Gratz v. Bollinger, two Anglo undergraduate applicants to the University of Michigan filed the case after their rejection, despite grades and test scores within the qualifying range. At question was the university's numerical system. Minority students automatically received 20 points, with 100 points needed for admission. The court struck down this policy, saying that the school must meet a strict scrutiny standard that takes into account other factors than minority status. Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote that a policy that automatically gives one-fifth of the points needed for admission to every minority applicant "is not narrowly tailored to achieve educational diversity."

The other case, Grutter v. Bollinger, involved an Anglo applicant who applied to the University of Michigan Law School with high grades and test scores. She argued that the use of race as an admission factor violated her constitutional right to equal treatment. But unlike the number-based undergraduate admissions system, the law school utilized a "highly individualized, holistic review" of an applicant's qualifications. This approach passed muster with the court.

While some activists and administrators agree with Justice Antonin Scalia's opinion that the "split doubleheader" decision will fuel future controversy and lawsuits, many educators feel it gives them needed discretion to do their jobs. Currently, institutions on the 2003 Hispanic Business Best Law Schools and Best Business Schools directories use a variety of approaches to diversity that will survive or expand in the wake of the decisions. For example, Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business has increased its Hispanic applicants to 6 percent of the pool, up from 1.7 percent in 1999. School officials credit the rise in part to minority exposure to non-degree programs, such as mid-career executive education classes or participation in leadership development classes.

Many Hispanic leaders with a stake in legal and business education, however, believe the debate must move from higher education to grade school, where the inequalities start.

"Affirmative action is not the cure, it's a remedy," says Edwin Garcia, executive director of the National Society of Hispanic MBAs (NSHMBA), based in Irving, Texas. "Now more than ever, we need to look at a cure. We would not need affirmative action if all students in grades K through 12 had access to quality education."

Duard Bradshaw, president of the Hispanic National Bar Association, takes hope from the Michigan decision's confirmation of the holistic admissions approach. "It really doesn't matter whether you were in the upper 5 percent of your class," says Mr. Bradshaw, a partner in the Akron, Ohio, law firm Roderick Linton. "Admissions offices rely heavily on grade point averages and LSAT [Law School Admissions Test] scores, and Latinos may not measure up, although they have skills in other areas. So law schools as a whole may have to examine the overall admissions criteria in order to increase the numbers of Latino law students."

Nonprofit groups dedicated to diversity in education have championed the need to better prepare students. New York-based Management Leadership for Tomorrow grew out of a 2001 study that found minorities to be less successful in applying for MBA admission in part because of lower Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) scores and poorer application packages, including essays.

Management Leadership for Tomorrow has held workshops at the Yale School of Management that brought in advisers, admissions officers, and student applicants from participating schools, including the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University and the business schools at Stanford, New York University, Duke, and the University of California, Berkeley. Services include critiques of application packages, guidance in writing essays, mock interviews, and GMAT preparation. The program also dips into high schools and the early college years to get students into the MBA pipeline early.

Another group, the national Leadership Education & Development program, brings high schoolers to mini-camps at business schools. And the nonprofit Consortium for Graduate Management Study has awarded about 5,000 scholarships at 15 business schools since its founding in 1996, as well as providing mentors and career help to minority MBA grads.

"Our hope is that the Supreme Court ruling won't affect what we do, because our schools do use the holistic approach the court talked about," says Barbara Britton Jones, the consortium's COO.

But getting minority students to make use of the resources available at the 14 member schools of the consortium remains challenging, says Ms. Britton Jones. Only 1,000 students, 34 percent of them Hispanic, applied for consortium scholarships this year. Of the 300 scholarships awarded, 42.6 percent went to Hispanics.

Even beyond the application process, Hispanic participation rates remain low. Although Hispanics represent about 13.5 percent of the U.S. population, only 4.5 percent of MBA graduates last year were Hispanic, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council. Only 2 percent of full-time business school faculty members are Hispanic, says the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business. And minorities held only 8.8 percent of the 7,500 board seats last year at Standard & Poor's 1500 companies, according to the Investor Responsibility Research Center in Washington, D.C.

Those figures add up to a lack of role models for Hispanics pursuing graduate education. According to Mr. Garcia of NSHMBA, students whose parents didn't go to college find it more difficult to understand what to do - or why they should go at all.

Most Hispanic undergrads interested in law are the first generation in their family to attend college, let alone law school, Mr. Bradshaw says. "I also have found that many of them said they didn't have the money to apply to more than one law school, which can have a significant impact if the school turns them down," he adds. Applications, including the LSAT, can cost as much as $600, but schools may waive fees if students request it.

Role models and social networks must step in where family leaves off. "Colleges that put people in touch with mentors, such as past graduates, tend to do better with Hispanic enrollment," says Mr. Garcia. "In many two-year graduate schools, the second-year students mentor the first-year students."

"We have a very active Chicano law student association," says Bill Powers, dean of the School of Law at the University of Texas at Austin, the number 1 school on the Hispanic Business Top 10 Law Schools directory this year. "Through that organization, in the first couple of days after the school year starts, I have all the minority students to my house for dinner. We have lunch together, too, once a semester."

UT Austin's law school had 10 percent Hispanic enrollment in 2002-2003, up a percentage point from the previous year.

Mr. Powers attributes some of the increase to aggressive recruiting. "Getting minority students accepted and coming here is something we work on constantly," he says. "I visit every public college in South Texas and El Paso every year with a plane filled with our students."

The school also offers a summer institute for undergrads considering law school; instruction includes case analysis, LSAT preparation, and writing skills.

The Law School Admission Council has a Minorities Interested in Legal Education project, which advises students on admissions processes and helps them prepare for the LSAT. The Hispanic National Bar Association reaches even further back, inviting high school students to attend one day of the organization's annual convention. "We have to give high school students and even younger people the idea that they can make it, they can be lawyers," Mr. Bradshaw asserts.

On business campuses, corporate involvement continues to grow. The Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, for example, has doubled its number of minority MBA students in five years with help from a workshop for prospective minority students, sponsored by Ford Motor Co. The National Hispanic Corporate Council this year has chosen Florida International University's College of Business Administration as its partner school. "These are major corporations interested in learning how to approach the Hispanic market," says Jose de la Torre, dean of the university's Alvah H. Chapman Graduate School of Business.

For Hispanic families and young professionals, the Michigan decisions and their aftermath provide a window of opportunity looking toward the future. "The outcome affects our community," says Mr. Bradshaw of the Hispanic National Bar. "We as professional lawyers owe it to our community to address the inequities in our country. It's a great country, but it's not perfect."

Mr. Garcia also takes a long view of affirmative action and how it can help Hispanics and society at large. "We're better off at the graduate level and less well off at the undergraduate level because of the court decision," he concludes. "Maybe we can use this wave of attention on affirmative action to talk about ways to improve public education for everybody."


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