News Column

Snatching Victory From Defeat

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The already formidable barriers to higher education for Hispanic students are becoming greater as court decisions, spiraling costs, and cultural traditions impede college-bound students. Ironically, remedies may blossom from the high court decisions that shook up many traditional affirmative action practices.

The dismantling of minority-based admissions and financial aid policies following two 2003 Supreme Court rulings over admissions policies at the University of Michigan is only part of the picture. With those changes, plus weak college-preparatory curricula in high school, rising tuition and fees, and family pressure to stay near home and work at least part-time, Hispanic students increasingly veer from the path to advanced degrees.

The issue matters beyond the individuals affected or even the Hispanic community as a whole. Experts warn that if these educational barriers remain as the Hispanic population grows, the nation may create such a large pool of undereducated workers that it won't be able to compete effectively in the global marketplace.

However, some hurdles may fall given time from at least two offshoots of colleges eliminating minority-based admissions: outreach that introduces Hispanic families to higher education, and recruitment that increases the pool of Hispanic college applicants.

While these concepts have been around for years, they have been invigorated by the most recent court cases.

The 2003 court challenges were brought against University of Michigan president Lee Bollinger by Anglo students claiming unfair admissions practices. In Gratz v. Bollinger, two students who were denied admission to the College of Literature, Science and the Arts cited the school's practice of awarding bonus admissions points to racial and ethnic minorities. The Supreme Court agreed 6-3 that the point system was too mechanistic and was unconstitutional.

In the better-known of the two cases, Grutter v. Bollinger, a student said she was denied admission to the Law School while underrepresented minorities with similar grades and test scores were accepted. While the court did not prohibit the use of race or ethnicity in admissions, it noted, "The Court takes the Law School at its word that it would like nothing better than to find a race-neutral admissions formula and will terminate its use of racial preferences as soon as practicable. The Court expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today."

The decisions energized opposition to affirmative action by those philosophically opposed to racial and ethnic preferences, leading officials in higher education across the nation to revise their policies under fear of lawsuits or pressure from groups like the Center for Equal Opportunity.

"There are many programs that are being changed in response to a continuing movement to challenge minority scholarships and other diversity programs," says Brigida Benitez, a partner in the Washington, D.C. law firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP and a lead for the defense in the Michigan cases. "Often, schools do not want to risk litigation nor incur the expense, effort, and potential exposure that may result.

That fear-based response may be overblown. "They need not 'limit their legal exposure,' as Grutter allows most to use race in a specific and careful way," says Michael A. Olivas, a professor and director of the Institute of Higher Education Law & Governance at the University of Houston Law Center. "Most schools outside California and Washington States can use race they just act as if they cannot." In those two states, as well as Florida, voters banned affirmative action in college admissions in California through Proposition 209 in 1996,Washington through Initiative 200 in 1998, and Florida through the One Florida Initiative in 1999.

While Mr. Olivas suggests that schools turn to recruiting as a way to meet diversity goals, others say it could take years for schools to get serious about this. "The nation doesn't see the immediacy of a need for diversity," says Antonio Flores, chief executive officer of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. "The nation doesn't recognize this as a national imperative. It affects the nation as a whole, though, because the idea of diversity as a component of higher education is that it forms people with global minds and adds value to education that you could not ordinarily get from your everyday life. It allows you to be better prepared to compete."

If the number of Hispanics earning bachelor's degrees were to double by 2010, tax revenue would increase by $7.6 billion over the students' lifetimes and $14 billion in disposable income would be added to the U.S. economy, according to the Hispanic Scholarship foundation.

That's a big 'if.' In the current environment, diversity may actually fall, as happened at Texas A&M and the University of Texas, Austin. In 1998, reacting to the Supreme Court's refusal to review a lower court's ruling in Hopwood v. Texas establishing that the University of Texas Law School could not use race in deciding admissions the Texas legislature began the "Texas 10 Percent Plan," guaranteeing that students in the top 10 percent of their high school classes will be admitted to any state university.

Comparing 1990 and 2000 (two years after the plan took effect), the percentage of Hispanic applicants who were admitted dropped from 79.9 percent to 68.3 percent at Texas A&M and from 77.7 percent to 76.3 percent at UT Austin. Princeton professor and researcher Marta Tienda found in this 2003 study for Princeton University's Office of Population Research that UT Austin had an aggressive outreach plan, to recruit economically disadvantaged and minority students while Texas A&M had only recently begun a similar program.

In another study of the top 10-percent plan, Ms. Tienda and her colleagues found that Hispanic high school students generally developed college aspirations late: only 30 percent had applied to four-year colleges by spring of their senior years. The researchers also found that only 71 percent of the highest-ranking Hispanic graduates planned to attend four-year schools, with cost and geographical distance from home key factors in that decision.

In a February 2006 study following students through the Texas system, Ms. Tienda and fellow Princeton researcher Sunny Niu concluded that "without aggressive recruitment at inner-city high schools with low college-going traditions and high minority student populations, coupled with generous scholarship support to enable high-ranked students from low performing schools to attend UT or A&M, the capacity of the law to diversify is limited."

Nationwide, the picture is not much different. Comparing U.S. Department of Education data for 1996 and 2004, the most recent year available, enrollment of Hispanics at top-tier colleges has changed little on a percentage basis, says Richard Fry, senior research associate at the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research organization supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

"What's different is that Hispanic students play a much greater role in two-year and vocational-education schools," he says. Mr. Fry attributes this to the concentration of Hispanic high school students in states with well-developed community college systems, the number of students having no other family members who've attended college, and other factors that are harder to measure.

Counseling systems often fail to direct minority students in urban schools to higher education, says Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel for the American Council on Education, which represents 1,800 colleges and universities.

"We know what the problems are," Mr. Steinbach says. "One is trying to ensure young men and women are taking the requisite courses and are being supported in their education.Young men and women need to realize college is possible without thinking Hoop Dreams is the only way to succeed. They need to realize student financial aid is available. It's not all about money, but additional resources would help."

Twenty-five percent of Hispanic students receive loans to pay for college, compared with 29 percent of white and 26 percent of black students, according to a 2004 study by Deborah A. Santiago and Sarita Brown for the Pew Hispanic Center. This may be due in part, they say, to where Hispanic students enroll almost half start their higher education at a nearby community college, and most don't transfer to a four-year college.

The challenges for degree-granting schools are not just getting students into college, but keeping them there.

"There's solid support for diversity in the student body," says John A. Garcia, a political science professor at the University of Arizona. "Then, when you talk about how to do it, there's competition for resources."

Nonetheless, the school has beefed up its minority recruitment, reaching out to families for support. "In some universities, it's a long-term effort," Mr. Garcia says. "Ours has targeted low-income elementary and middle schools. If a student participates, the parents must agree to participate, too, so we're informing the parents and getting their commitment."

Parental and family involvement is integral to breaking down some of the self-imposed barriers to higher education. At the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, Margaret Montoya, a law professor on a School of Medicine admission committee, says, "Since I started working with outreach in the public schools I've found a lot of parents have never set foot on a campus."

This creates personal obstacles for Hispanic students who end their higher education at community college. "It requires a psychological step to move away from home and to a school that's possibly more academically rigorous.

"We need to give a message to low-income and immigrant families that they're making an investment in the student…Even one member of the family going on in higher education can have incredible repercussions on younger family members," Ms. Montoya says.

The Supreme Court didn't kill affirmative action, she says; they renewed it.

"I think the new emphasis on the educational pipeline university collaborations with community colleges and public schools to improve graduation rates, academic preparation and college planning with students and parents is an outgrowth of the Grutter-Gratz litigation," Ms. Montoya explains. "The collaborations that are developing around the nation will create synergy and innovation in addressing a range of problems that students of color face at different points along the educational continuum from pre-kindergarten to doctoral studies.

"Our challenge and our promise as a nation is to take advantage of the diversity presented to us."

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