The Bush administration has pointed to percentage plans in use at public university systems in California, Texas, and Florida as workable alternatives to affirmative action. At the University of California, students who rank in the top 4 percent of their graduating class and meet other eligibility requirements receive admission offers. At the University of Florida, the same applies to students among the top 20 percent, while at the University of Texas, the benchmark is the top 10 percent.
However, those plans have failed to sustain minority admission levels, notes Ms. Tienda, who spearheaded one of three recent studies demonstrating the relative ineffectiveness of so-called race-neutral plans as diversity catalysts on college campuses.
"I would be delighted to see race-neutral strategies to achieve diversity, but they do not exist. They cannot exist because race and class disparities are indelible parts of the American experience," she says.
According to the study co-authored by Ms. Tienda, minority admission rates at flagship institutions in Texas fell sharply after a federal court outlawed affirmative action in the 1996 Hopwood v. Texas case. State legislators instituted the 10-percent plan two years later.
Hispanics accounted for 12.6 percent of enrollees at Texas A&M University before Hopwood, but only 9.2 percent after the ruling.
At the University of Texas at Austin, Hispanic enrollment fell from 15.8 percent to 13.7 percent. Three years ago, Hispanics accounted for roughly 40 percent of the state's college-age population.
The study, titled "Closing the Gap?: Texas College Enrollments Before and After Affirmative Action," analyzed application, admission, and enrollment data from 1990 to 2000 at UT Austin and Texas A&M, the only public universities in the state to have practiced affirmative action prior to the Hopwood ruling.
Two other recent studies by researchers at Harvard University's Civil Rights Project have yielded similar results. Those studies found that percentage plans in use at public universities in Florida, Texas, and California have failed to create campus enrollments that mirror the diversity of each state's college-age population.
Like the research spearheaded by Ms. Tienda, the Harvard studies indicate that the problem is most pronounced at elite institutions. At the University of California at Berkeley, for instance, the percentage of Hispanic freshmen declined from 16.9 percent in 1995 to 10.8 percent in 2001. The University of California stopped using affirmative action in admissions in 1997.