- The Washington Times - Friday, June 18, 2004

In our long, hard slog through America’s racial confusions, there are lessons deep in the heart of Texas’ current dilemma over diversity on campus.

A “10 percent solution” Texans devised to replace race-based admissions policies has worked much better for the University of Texas than anyone had a right to expect. Unfortunately, that’s the problem.

State senators begin holding committee hearings this month to investigate possible modifications to the plan they approved after a federal court outlawed the use of race in the admissions policies of the state’s public universities in 1996.

The law guarantees admission to the top 10 percent of the graduating class from any and every public or private high school in the state. Since race tends to follow neighborhood and income patterns, there has been an increase in minority enrollment at the state’s premier universities, the University of Texas and Texas A&M; — plus a bonus increase in rural whites.

For example, schools feeding graduates to the University of Texas have risen by a third, from just more than 600 of 1,600 high schools to more than 800 since the plan began in 1998.

Ah, what a lovely scheme. Small wonder California and Florida quickly adopted similar percentage plans, and other states are considering them.

But that’s the good news. Unfortunately, a Texas-sized backlash erupted among parents in better-off high schools with a novel complaint: reverse discrimination against overachievers.

Parents in more affluent school districts complaining their hard-working, high-performing little Jills and Johnnies are penalized for attending academically rigorous high school where it is much tougher to make the top 10 percent.

Even advocates of the percentage plan say it would be a mistake to accuse these disgruntled parents of merely trying to hold on to upper-class privilege. The “10 percenters” have grown rapidly from about 40 percent of the freshman admissions to more than 70 percent, squeezing out gifted youths with better test scores or special talents like music ability who didn’t quite make the top 10 percent of their class.

“As we reach deeper into the top 10 percent pool of high school graduates, we are beginning to see a fairness problem,” said Douglas Laycock, a University of Texas law school professor who helped defend the school’s earlier affirmative action policy before the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Even though the program began under former Gov. George W. Bush and is defended by Education Secretary Rod Paige, another Texan, current Texas Gov. Rick Perry frets the plan is unfair and causes qualified students to leave the state.

A consensus appears to growing to lower the percentage of students admitted under the plan, which will increase those who can be accepted based on test scores and other skills.

Yet another challenge gathers on the horizon: the state’s nonwhite population, especially among Hispanics, is increasing faster than the geography-based plan can keep up.

So, what to do? An important clue may be offered by Texas A&M;, which has dramatically increased all minority groups this fall, including a huge 57 percent increase for black students, though it does not consider race or ethnicity in admissions.

As Texas A&M; has figured out, recruitment policies are just as important as admissions policies in attracting a diverse student body. As Mr. Leacock told me, the percentage plan has made recruitment easier by crossing the credibility gap college representatives often run into with students who don’t believe they have a chance to get into the state’s top schools. “Our president can go into any high school and say: ‘You don’t have to just trust us. It’s the law: Your competition is in this room. Make the top 10 percent and you are guaranteed admission.’ ”

That’s a powerful sales pitch. Early research indicates students admitted under the 10 percent plan perform better academically than the overall student average. The percentage plan works, but a reasonable limit needs to be found to avoid crowding out highly qualified students who missed the top 10 percent at the most competitive schools

At the same time, the experience of Texas A&M; and other universities shows how effectively an aggressive recruitment effort can boost enrollment of qualified minority students and other underserved communities.

In short, as Texas educators and legislators wrestle with the future of their percentage plan, they should remember the old Clinton administration slogan: Mend it, don’t end it. Until we are truly ready to leave no child behind in our public schools, the percentage plans move in the right direction.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide