News Column

Affirmative Action Front and Center

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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.

"It's important to remember that we're talking about flagship institutions here Berkeley, UCLA, the University of Michigan. Nobody is fighting over admissions to lesser-known campuses within these state university systems," points out Ms. Tienda, a member of the Hispanic Business Board of Economists.

Nevertheless, the studies provide a glimpse of what would happen at a great many public universities should the Supreme Court rule in favor of the plaintiffs in the University of Michigan cases, says Juan Perea, the Cone Wagner Nugent Johnson Hazouri & Roth Professor of Law at the University of Florida's Levin College of Law.

"In the long run, ending affirmative action in college admissions would have a devastating effect on minority enrollment at professional and graduate schools, contributing to a two-tier system whereby whites have access to the best opportunities and people of color get the leftovers," he says.

Mr. Perea and others argue that the strong economic gains enjoyed by U.S. Hispanics in recent years are at least partly attributable to affirmative action policies. The number of Hispanics working in white-collar professions has grown impressively in recent years, as has Hispanic purchasing power, pegged at $540 billion last year, an 8.1 percent increase over 2001's total (see Media Markets Report, December 2002).

Many economists and demographers are inclined to ascribe such data to the overall increase in the Hispanic population, which has been fueled in large degree by immigration. According to that view, Hispanics now hold more highly paying jobs and collectively wield greater purchasing power by virtue of being more numerous generally.

Former U.S. Secretary of Labor nominee Linda Chavez says there is little conclusive evidence that affirmative action has aided the causes of minority professional advancement and affluence, and in any case the suggestion taints the accomplishments of Hispanics and other beneficiaries of such policies.

"There have been few scientifically valid studies done on the impact of affirmative action on minority hiring and promotions, but the question itself implies that Hispanics and blacks would not have made gains absent preferential treatment. I don't believe that," says Ms. Chavez, who is president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a nonprofit public-policy research organization in Washington, D.C.

"Racial and ethnic preferences in college admissions don't solve the larger problem of lousy public schools in poor communities. Giving parents the opportunity to remove their children from failing elementary and secondary schools is a far more effective way to deal with the skills gap that still exists between whites and Asians, on the one hand, and blacks and Hispanics on the other."

Ms. Chavez points out that the college graduation rate for U.S.-born Hispanics has remained about 13 percent despite affirmative action programs over the last three decades, and says the Hispanic community itself must emphasize the importance of a college education among its young.

"The experience of California in the wake of Proposition 209, which banned preferences in college admissions, shows that more Hispanics are enrolled at the University of California today than were admitted under preferential affirmative action programs. The difference is they are now going to campuses where they can compete on their own merit," she says, echoing Ms. Tienda's distinction between flagship campuses and their less-visible counterparts within state university systems.

According to the University of California press office, the number of Hispanic freshmen enrolled systemwide is up markedly this year despite drops at the Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses.

In the end, maintains Mr. Perea, ensuring that Hispanics have access to top universities is in the country's fiscal interest. Noting that Hispanics are disproportionately young the overwhelming majority are age 40 or younger he says they will shoulder much of the burden for funding future social services.

"We have a very large aging white population that will soon need social security and other services. It seems to me we'll need more highly paid professionals to pay for these services. If we don't invest right now to ensure that everyone has access to the best opportunities, we may find that can't afford some social services in the years ahead," he says.


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