Do these numbers add up?

Critics of affirmative action now tout plans that guarantee college admission to a percentage of a state’s high school graduates. Last month, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a report urging caution in using such plans. We spoke with Commission Chairperson Mary Frances Berry about why the commission decided to enter the fray. Here’s what she said:

Public interest in percentage plans as substitutes for affirmative action has grown in recent months, and a number of states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, are considering following Florida’s lead and replacing affirmative action with percentage plans in the absence of a mandate to do so. Since part of our mission is to educate the public on civil rights issues, we felt that the time was right for us to examine whether these plans produce diverse student bodies.

We examined college admissions data provided by the states of California and Texas, where race-conscious affirmative action has been abolished by law, along with information about Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s proposed percentage plan as posted on his Web site. What we found was that unless these plans are implemented with great care, they do not work as well as traditional affirmative action.

The good…

The Texas 10 percent plan, for instance, is an appropriate and imaginative response to the Hopwood decision that outlawed affirmative action in that state. It has succeeded in producing almost as much undergraduate diversity at the University of Texas at Austin as existed before Hopwood. But it has two major problems. While the plan has succeeded in increasing the Latino and African-American applicant pool for UT-Austin, it has also produced a lower percentage of students admitted, or yield. And the plan does nothing at all to improve minority enrollment at the graduate and professional level.

The bad…

California’s four percent plan, on the other hand, is just window dressing. Instead of working to boost minority enrollment at the flagship Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses, California has diverted minority students to other, less prestigious University of California campuses, then failed to give those campuses the resources they need to meet these students’ educational needs. And, as in Texas, it does nothing for graduate and professional enrollment.

And the iffy

The Florida plan’s biggest defect is that it does not require any of the state universities to admit the students who qualify. The other problem, which even Bush acknowledges, is that many of the students who would be eligible might not have the required pre-college credits because their high schools do not offer the necessary courses. And some of the governor’s more imaginative proposals, such as funding for expanded tutoring programs, may or may not actually happen. This plan needs more work; Bush should listen more to people with a stake in the outcome and come up with some experiments that might work. In the meantime, this plan is no substitute for affirmative action.

But the most dismaying aspect of all of these plans is that they assume the continuation of what [Dorothy S. Thomas Professor of Sociology] Doug Massey called “American apartheid.” And they all tacitly acknowledge that their states’ governors are not meeting their state constitutional duties to provide a thorough education to all.

These plans can be improved, but their underlying flaw can be fixed only by the Supreme Court’s reaffirming and extending the Bakke decision, and by clear state commitments to fix their broken elementary and secondary education systems.

Mary Frances Berry, Ph.D., is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of History and chairperson of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

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Originally published on May 4, 2000